Looney and Liedtke For the Defense (Almost)
Saul C. Looney and J. Brent Liedtke run a two-man law practice out of a seventh-floor suite in an office building in far west Houston. Looney has been a lawyer for less than five years, having taken his degree from South Texas College of Law in 1990 after quitting a career as a stockbroker. Liedtke's been practicing law off and on since the early 1980s, but he's currently unable to do so in Texas courts, having been disbarred the same year that Looney graduated from law school.
Liedtke is an associate in Looney's firm, which otherwise consists of two paralegals and a receptionist (they'll be adding a third lawyer shortly, Liedtke says). Courthouse records show Looney has mostly represented drug, burglary and theft defendants in Harris County courts, and he's also listed as the attorney of record in a smattering of civil actions, primarily personal injury claims arising from auto accidents.
Looney's previously had a few narrow brushes with local notoriety -- he represents a sex offender who's suing the state to force it to castrate him (it works on farm animals, Looney reasons) and he also showed up on the periphery of the standoff at David Koresh's Mount Carmel compound two years ago. As for Liedtke, he says he represented his share of unpopular clients when he practiced in Galveston before his disbarment: "It seems like every time that they'd pick up another 'Seawall rapist,' I'd get appointed to represent him."
In other words, the two aren't exactly the type of big legal guns you'd expect to be called into what will be the largest mass-murder case in the nation's history. But, at least for a few hours recently, Looney and Liedtke found themselves at the federal correctional facility in El Reno, Oklahoma, face-to-face with accused Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.
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The story of exactly how they got there is sketchy, to say the least. Looney says he was retained by McVeigh's sister to provide counsel for her brother. He won't go into much detail on how a lawyer out on the Katy Freeway came to the attention of Jennifer McVeigh, who was living in Pensacola when her brother was arrested, other than to say that he was referred to her by "a person that lives in Kansas."
"We've got cases pending in 12 states," the lanky, intense Looney said during an interview last week at his office. "It's not at all uncommon for us to get calls from the four corners of the earth."
Earlier, before Looney had joined the interview, Liedtke had suggested that the referral of Looney to Jennifer McVeigh had something to do with Looney's representation of Louis Alaniz, a bit player in the Branch Davidian saga. Alaniz, as you may not remember, was the Houston man (described by his mother as a "religious fanatic") who sneaked into the Davidians' compound about a month after their standoff with federal agents began and walked out two days before the conflagration that leveled it. (Timothy McVeigh is said to have made a pilgrimage to the site of the Mount Carmel compound.)
But Looney says that, no, the two were unrelated.
Whatever the case, the pair say they were defending clients in a drug conspiracy trial in a Mobile federal court (Liedtke, who was disbarred on a default judgment obtained by the State Bar, can practice in the U.S. court system) when Jennifer McVeigh made contact with Looney. They drove to Pensacola to visit her on the evening of April 25, Liedtke says, and two days later were in Oklahoma meeting with Timothy McVeigh, who was then being reluctantly represented by two court-appointed attorneys who had acquaintances who died in the bombing and wanted off the case.
Looney and Liedtke spoke with McVeigh that day on three different occasions, for a total of two hours, according to Liedtke. They found him "calm, courteous, introspective, thoughtful and well-spoken," says Liedtke. "I guess what struck me more than anything else was that he was so cool under fire."
The Houston lawyers' consultations with McVeigh came on the eve of the suspect's detention hearing, six days after his arrest. At the time, McVeigh had not been given access to newspapers or television, Liedtke says, and was not fully aware of the gravity of his situation.
"I don't believe he knew he was the most hated man in America," the lawyer says.
As it turned out, those visits were to be the extent of their contact with McVeigh. The suspect informed U.S. Magistrate Ronald Howland that he didn't want Looney and Liedtke as counsel, because, according to Liedtke, he has disavowed any help from his family. Since then, McVeigh's two initial court-appointed attorneys have been allowed off the case and been replaced by another Oklahoma lawyer, and some high-profile defense lawyers, including Dick DeGuerin of Houston, reportedly have been approached about defending McVeigh and declined.
But Looney and Liedtke say they stood ready to guarantee McVeigh's Sixth Amendment right to counsel, and they even had tentatively begun plotting a line of legal maneuvering on behalf of the 27-year-old Gulf War veteran.
"I've never been involved in a case where I could pick up the newspaper and find out where I had reversible errors," Looney says.
So it was that simple, huh?
"It was that simple," Looney replies, with the bravado of a man who won't have to be proving it.
One of the tactics they had discussed, Liedtke explains, was the possibility of trying to disqualify the government from seeking the death penalty because of the pre-arrest pronouncements by President Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno that the government indeed would be seeking the death penalty.
"There are protocols that have to be considered and met before the Justice Department can seek the death penalty in any case," Liedtke says, "and these protocols were just set aside by political persons trying to say the politically right thing."
The prospect of subpoenaing the president to testify "was certainly interesting," he adds.
Liedtke says they also would have sought the recusal of any of the federal judges in Oklahoma City who might be assigned to the case and would have demanded appointment of a special prosecutor not connected to the government and thus immune to political pressure.
Without an independent prosecutor, McVeigh "absolutely can't get a fair trail," Liedtke contends.
Both lawyers admit, however, that the prospect of actually having to represent Timothy McVeigh was more than a bit daunting.
"A part of me relished it and a part of me feared it," says Looney, who found that being under such a large spotlight carried some distractions.
"We were getting 50 to 75 calls a day from the media," he says. "You couldn't walk out to take a shit without passing through a camera crew."
Liedtke, who registers in a considerably lower key than his partner, acknowledges he was "somewhat nonplused" at the possibility of defending McVeigh. But he says that it would have been hard for the two-man firm to pass up the case had the suspect actually wanted to retain them.
In addition to a few headlines, the trip to Oklahoma City afforded the lawyers the opportunity to walk in and around the bombed-out Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. The wreckage seems to have left a deeper impression on Liedtke than the soft-spoken, courteous facade of Timothy McVeigh.
"Errie, errie feeling," says Liedtke. "Unsettling, to say the least.
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