Howard Tanner went from champion debater at Miami Beach High to handling some of the thorniest criminal cases in New York, involving killers, hardened criminals and cops accused of corruption.
His most recent high-profile case involves defending a Brooklyn handyman caught on video spraying an elderly woman with gasoline, then tossing a firebomb at her in an elevator.
Taking on tough cases is something the prosecutor-turned-defense-attorney relishes. Tanner, 47, first honed his courtroom skills at Beach High, where he debated current affairs and such weighty issues as whether ketchup constituted a vegetable on school lunch menus.
Now, he takes on what is perhaps the most challenging case of his career, one with ties to his hometown: he is defending Narcy Novack, a former stripper accused of masterminding the murder of her millionaire husband, Ben Novack Jr., and his mother, Bernice Novack, whose husband built the fabled Fontainebleau hotel in Miami Beach.
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Ben Novack Jr., 52, was found by his wife, bludgeoned to death with his eyes gouged out, in their hotel room in Rye Brook, N.Y. on July 12, 2009. The Fort Lauderdale couple was overseeing a business convention. His mother, 87, was found dead four months earlier in her Fort Lauderdale home. Her death, initially ruled an accident, was later deemed a homicide.
Jury selection starts Tuesday for the trial in federal court in White Plains, N.Y., where Narcy Novack, 55, and her brother, Cristobal Veliz, 58, are accused in a bizarre murder-for-hire scheme with plot twists rivaling a seamy pulp fiction novel. Prosecutors argue that the pair hired hit men in Miami to first eliminate Bernice Novack by beating her with a monkey wrench, then executing her son so that his widow would inherit the family’s estate.
NOT AN EASY CLIENT
Narcy Novack isn’t an easy client to defend. Before hiring Tanner, she voluntarily spoke with police detectives for a marathon 14 hours, detailing sordid details of her husband’s kinky sex fetishes and obsession with Batman memorabilia. She gave inconsistent answers and, at one point, tried to implicate a comic book collector in the murder.
Still without a lawyer, she agreed to take a lie detector test, which she all but flunked. She then let her husband’s body fester unclaimed in the Westchester County morgue for seven weeks before making funeral arrangements.
She surreptitiously emptied his safe deposit boxes by deceiving a Fort Lauderdale bank manager into believing that he was still alive.
Legal experts say Tanner, who has been practicing for 23 years, has his work cut out for him. But those who know him in and outside the courtroom say he is a master at discrediting witnesses, poking holes in police evidence and casting doubt in the eyes of skeptical jurors.
“He has people sense, common sense and street sense,” said James Leeper, Tanner’s former boss in the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office where Tanner worked from 1989 to 1995.
Some say he will need to use everything in his arsenal to win acquittal for Novack, who prosecutors say was so determined to get rid of her husband and inherit his wealth that she watched the killers beat him to death and then ordered them to cut out his eyes.
At the time of his murder, police say Ben Novack, the owner of a successful convention planning business, was having an affair with a Miami tattoo artist and talking about leaving his wife.
Tanner, who is court appointed, will face U.S. Attorney Elliott B. Jacobson, a no-nonsense, bow-tie clad Harvard Law School grad who in 2009 helped convict former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik on charges of obstruction of justice and tax evasion.
Another criminal defense attorney, Lawrence Sheehan of Brooklyn, is representing co-defendant Veliz, who lived in Philadelphia at the time of the murders.
Jacobson, 59, is armed with three key witnesses to Novack’s alleged crimes — the hit men who confessed to the killings and are expected to testify against Novack and Veliz. He hopes to back up their testimony with hard evidence gathered by lead Detective Sgt. Terence Wilson of Rye Brook police.
Ed Cobin, Tanner’s former high school debate coach, said he won’t be surprised if Tanner manages to pull it off.
“He could argue a side to anything and win,” recalled Cobin, now retired. “But he was a very ethical debater. He didn’t push the corners of truthfulness.”
BEACH HIGH GRAD
Born in Queens, Howard Gershkoff Tanner moved with his mother and sister to Miami Beach when he was 10, after his parents’ divorce. He attended Lehrman Community Day School before going on to Beach High, where he graduated in 1982. He earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Florida in Gainesville, and his law degree from the University of Miami.
He was an avid New York Jets fan who spent more time in the library studying than socializing and watching TV, recalled Joel Greene, his childhood friend and college roommate.
Even back then, he recalls, Tanner seemed to enjoy the sport of debate.
“We would debate about stupid stuff, like whether a kitchen trash can should be stored in a cabinet or out where you could easily access it,” said Greene, a Miami Beach real estate broker.
His mother, Irma Tanner, a retired medical administrator who now lives in Hollywood, said her son was always trying to persuade and influence people from the time he was 10.
“People would always say to me that he should be an attorney because he was good at making an argument,” she said.
Tanner, born Howard Gershkoff, grew up in North Bay Village, a short ride to the Fontainebleau where, as a kid, he used to sneak into the game room and sometime take a dip in the resort’s pool. He changed his last name after high school in honor of his maternal grandfather, Jack Tanner, a CPA, whom he said was a significant influence on his life.
He was recruited right out of college to work as an assistant district attorney in Brooklyn. During his six-year tenure as a prosecutor, he helped put away drug dealers, robbers, rapists and killers.
In 1995, he joined the law firm of Lysaght Lysaght and Kramer as a criminal defense attorney, often defending New York City police officers accused of taking bribes or other wrongdoing.
He went into private practice with partner Hugo G. Ortega in 1998, specializing in criminal law.
In 2008, Tanner represented Lt. Gary Napoli, who was in charge of an undercover New York police detail accused in the notorious fatal shooting of Sean Bell, who died in a hail of 50 police bullets on his wedding day. The event prompted widespread protests, as activists such as the Rev. Al Sharpton, claimed the shooting was unjustified and that officers used excessive force. Bell was unarmed.
Napoli was not charged criminally, but he was among seven officers accused of violating department policies. Tanner successfully fended off the charges and Napoli retired with full benefits
Another former client, New York City Police Officer George Santiago, said Tanner defended him against bogus charges that he and four other police officers took bribes from street vendors.
Santiago recalls that at the end of the three-week trial, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty within an hour.
“He pretty much discredited all the witnesses,” Santiago said. “At one point, it was a like a scene from the movie My Cousin Vinny, when he went to the back of the courtroom and took off his jacket.
“He asked the witness what color his shirt was, and the witness responded ‘gray,’ and then he asked the witness how it was that he could see the color of his shirt from the back of the courtroom but he couldn’t see the color of my shirt from a few feet away.’’
Experts say that Tanner’s biggest obstacle in the Novack case will be trying to control his client who has, on more than one occasion, tried to run her own defense.
Last month, she surprised Tanner when she attempted to hire an attorney to assist him without even asking him. The mystery attorney, Gary Greenwald of Chester, N.Y. showed up in federal court claiming that Novack gave him tens of thousands of dollars in jewelry to join her legal defense. Greenwald asked U.S. District Judge Kenneth M. Karas if he would release some of Novack’s other assets so that he could help represent her.
Then, in open court, Novack pleaded with Karas, telling him she would even surrender her wedding ring to hire the attorney, whom she contacted on her own. Greenwald was admonished by the judge for interfering, and Karas also scolded Novack for claiming she was broke when she asked for a public defender.
Tanner, who had been hired by Novack after her husband’s murder, agreed to continue representing her as her court-appointed lawyer, after her July 2010 arrest. At the time, her assets were frozen and she said she had no money to continue paying him. Tanner agreed to take on the federal case at a reduced fee.
Last week, Tanner got another surprise when he read that his client had given an unauthorized interview with a local newspaper.
Novack apparently called the reporters to plead her case that prosecutors and police had arrested the wrong person. At one point, she questioned whether her husband was alive or dead.
Tanner won’t discuss details of the Novack case. He once was taken to task by Karas for a comment he made to a reporter questioning the credibility of the prosecution’s witnesses. He later apologized.
But he doesn’t apologize for defending people accused of heinous crimes.
“There are monsters out there, but no matter who it is, in our system of government, you are innocent until proven guilty,’’ he said.
Bob Jarvis, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University who has followed the case, said Tanner likely will try to focus on the seamy side of Ben Novack’s life, which allegedly included sex with prostitutes, tattoo artists and women and children with artificial limbs.
The strategy, he said, could raise questions for the jury about whether Novack’s behavior — and the strange people he associated with — may have led to foul play.
“Who the heck knows who he was spending time with?” Jarvis said. “And all their proof comes from sleazy individuals, so the defense is going to try to cast doubt on the witnesses.’’
Michael Mirer, a Miami criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor, said juries tend to not like witnesses who, he said, “are testifying to save their own skin.’’
In this case, the accused killers are cooperating with prosecutors in hopes of receiving a reduced sentence. Two of the accomplices have already pleaded guilty to lesser crimes in connection with the case.
“The prosecutors, in order to get a conviction, have to be able to corroborate the witnesses’ testimony,’’ Mirer said.
“Obviously, the motive is money — the root of all evil. They will have to show a connection that’s going to stand up under cross-examination.’’
Tanner, who was Florida’s state high school debate champion in 1982, said a lawyer is only as good as his evidence.
“To be successful in many of these cases you have to show a lack of evidence,’’ he said. “It takes very little to arrest somebody. It takes a lot more to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.’’