Miami criminal defense attorney Richard Sharpstein, a quick-witted showman who represented everyone from cocaine cowboys to troubled cops during a long and colorful career, was found dead in his Miami Beach condo Tuesday.
News of Sharpstein’s death — ruled a suicide Wednesday by Miami Beach police — left the South Florida legal community in shock.
Many colleagues expressed bewilderment because Sharpstein always seemed so eternally upbeat and at 63 remained at the top of his game. Just last week, he was honored as one of South Florida’s top attorneys.
Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, who once worked alongside Sharpstein when he was a young prosecutor, summed up his larger-than-life persona.
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“No one that I know, even if they tried, could ever say an unkind word about Richard,” Fernandez Rundle said. “His razor-sharp mind and silver tongue created a terrific sense of humor, which could charm courtrooms and enliven the dullest of conversations.
“Richard was the consummate gentleman and the type of lawyer I would wish every assistant state attorney to be: ethical, dogged in their pursuit of justice, but reasonable and compassionate.”
Sharpstein’s law firm, Akerman Senterfitt, issued a statement from its chairman and chief executive officer, Andrew Smulian.
“We are shocked and deeply saddened by the death of our partner Richard Sharpstein. Our thoughts and prayers go out to Richard's family during this very difficult time.”
His colleague in the defense bar, Ed Shohat, described Sharpstein as a “terrific lawyer and good friend.”
“This is the most personally devastating news I have heard about a colleague in the past 25 years,” Shohat said.
On Friday, Sharpstein had attended a Daily Business Review awards ceremony recognizing the Most Effective Lawyers of 2013. He was honored for persuading the Drug Enforcement Administration to reverse the $20.2 million seizure of funds from his client, Republic Metals Corp.
Several people close to Sharpstein said that, if he did take his own life, they had no clue he was troubled. They said he had been working through Monday night, sending and responding to emails until at least 11 p.m.
Early Tuesday, he called an Akerman associate to say he would not be coming in because he wasn’t feeling well.
According to a police report, Sharpstein’s body was found submerged in a foot of water in his bathtub later that morning.
After an autopsy, Sharpstein’s death was ruled a suicide by drowning, according to Miami Beach police.
“This decision was based on evidence on the scene as well as statements made by those that were close to him,” police Sgt. Robert Hernandez said on Wednesday.
Investigators suspect Sharpstein sedated himself, and are awaiting toxicology reports. A note on a yellow legal pad also was found in his bedroom. It addressed loved ones.
Sharpstein was found in his Aqua high-rise condo by his housekeeper, who ran out of the unit in a panic and called security. While she spoke to police Tuesday morning, she was looking through her cellphone and broke down in tears after she discovered that Sharpstein had left a message “telling her not to come in today,” the report said.
Sharpstein, who celebrated his 63rd birthday in October, finalized his divorce from his wife, lawyer Janice Sharpstein, last month. Before he joined Akerman, they had practiced law together. The couple raised three children in the Kendall area before moving to Miami Beach.
Sharpstein, a Massachusetts native, obtained his bachelor’s and law degrees from Tulane University. He started his legal career as a prosecutor in the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office, where he prosecuted major crimes and corruption cases.
“He was a big influence on me,” said Miami attorney Joseph Rosenbaum, who also attended law school at Tulane. “He’s the reason I came to Miami and joined the state attorney’s office. He was one of a kind and leaves a tremendous void in our community.”
After his stint as a prosecutor, Sharpstein went into private practice, developing a storied reputation over 35 years as a go-to criminal defense lawyer who represented everyone from accused murderers to drug dealers to police officers.
Graced with a distinctive gravelly voice, Sharpstein moved around the courtroom like an accomplished actor, often with comedic flair. Defense attorneys, prosecutors and judges alike relished his performances. So did jurors.
“He was a joy to watch in the courtroom,” said retired Miami-Dade County Judge Jonathan Colby. “The jurors could not take their eyes off of him and they listened to every single word that he said to them. Even though he was defending indicted criminal defendants, the arresting law enforcement officers loved him and respected him. … Richard Sharpstein was one of the good guys in this world. He really cared about protecting the innocent.”
Back in 1987, when the Florida Criminal Defense Attorneys Association met for its annual officers installation dinner, pop singer Howard Hewett provided the entertainment — for free — as a favor to Sharpstein, the group’s outgoing president.
Sharpstein won an acquittal for Hewett, a former member of the group Shalamar, in a federal cocaine-trafficking trial the previous year.
The news media ate up Sharpstein’s every word because he was so quotable, sometimes offering over-the-top sound bites.
In November 2001, Sharpstein crystalized the federal crackdown on the notorious cocaine network of drug lords Willie Falcon and Sal Magluta, as they awaited trial.
Sharpstein’s client, Eduardo Lezcano, Malgluta’s brother-in-law, had just been convicted of murdering a trio of government witnesses to prevent their testimony against “The Boys” — as their friends nicknamed them long ago.
“This was just the warm-up, the hors d'oeuvres,” Sharpstein told the Miami Herald, referencing the approaching holiday season. “The dinner is Willie and Sal — the big, fat Thanksgiving turkey.”
Douglas Hartman, who represents the Miami-Dade Police Benevolent Association in criminal cases, tried more than 70 cases with Sharpstein over the years. Often, they represented officers accused of crimes.
“He was a champion of law enforcement,” Hartman said. “He would take a lot of these cases for nowhere near his normal fee because he felt it was a public service.”
Most famously, Sharpstein represented Miami Officer Tom Trujillo, one of six Miami officers acquitted in the 1988 beating death of drug dealer Leonardo Mercado. He called Mercado's nephews, key witnesses for the government, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.”
The six were acquitted.
Also among his clients: ex-Miami Officer Jorge D. Castello, one of 13 cops indicted in a gun-planting conspiracy in the late 1990s. He was convicted.
In 2006, he earned the acquittal of Sweetwater cop Allen St. Germain, who was charged with beating up a teenager in a dust-up over a stolen JetSki. He has also recently accepted the case of Sweetwater Detectve William Garcia, arrested by the FBI in August for ID theft.
Most recently, Sharpstein represented Homestead Police Sgt. Lizanne Deegan, who was accused of covering up an attack by officers on a patron outside a bar. Prosecutors wound up dropping the misconduct charge last month.
“Sgt. Deegan is thrilled and gratified that this long ordeal is finally over and that she is vindicated,” Sharpstein told the Miami Herald last week, in his final quote to the newspaper.
Sharpstein was also known for leaving droll voice-mail messages on his cellphone, including his final one: “I’m out fighting for truth, justice and the American way.”