Miami attorney E. David Rosen defended the reputed financial wizard of organized crime in America for years, yet he never said a word about Meyer Lansky outside the courtroom.
That was Rosen’s style, total discretion.
It was only recently — before the 90-year-old legal lion died of a lung disease on Saturday — that he let his relatives in on a seemingly benign secret about his infamous client: Lansky always addressed him as “Mr. Rosen,” or “Counselor,” never calling him by his first name.
Rosen’s son, Michael, who as a criminal defense lawyer worked with his father for 25 years, said he was a “legend” in the courtroom, attracting clients like Lansky because they respected him while he zealously guarded their confidences.
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He said that his father, who launched his legal career as a federal prosecutor before starting his own law firm in the mid-1950s, drew spectators.
“When David Rosen was giving a closing argument, the defense bar and prosecutors would rush to the courthouse,” his son recalled Monday. “My dad would say in his usual self-deprecating manner, ‘I always thought my cross was better than my closing.’ ”
A prominent Miami criminal defense attorney, Joel Hirschhorn, called Rosen “the most understated yet powerful criminal tax defense lawyer in the country. Nobody could touch him. There are no words to describe E. David Rosen’s ability to read the cards in court. When he spoke, we all listened.”
Rosen was born in Pittsburgh in 1925. His parents, Nathan and Anna Rosen, moved him and his three brothers to Miami Beach in his teens. Rosen graduated at 17 from Miami Beach Senior High School, where he served as class president. He enlisted in the Navy and saw action in the Pacific.
The Navy also sent him to the University of Notre Dame, University of North Carolina and Harvard University to receive training in engineering and communications. After the war, he attended the University of Miami School of Law. He joined the U.S. attorney’s office in Miami in the early 1950s.
He caught the eye of a New York lawyer, Barnie Fleischer, who worked in Miami and specialized in defending clients charged with income-tax violations. Rosen also represented many lawyers, doctors and organized crime figures during his storied career.
His most notorious client was Lansky, who was pals and partners with vice overlord Charles “Lucky” Luciano and mobster-gambler Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel. They made a small fortune off bootlegging in New York and New Jersey, then Lansky built an empire in the postwar era around gambling — with legal establishments in Las Vegas and Cuba and illegal venues in Miami.
But in the early 1970s, federal authorities began investigating allegations that Lansky and others had skimmed at least $14 million from the Flamingo Hotel casino in Las Vegas. Lansky, who had been hiding in Israel to avoid extradition to the United States, was charged with criminal contempt for not answering a subpoena to appear before the grand jury in Miami.
And when he was later indicted in the skimming case, Lansky was forced to return to Miami because no other country would take him.
Lansky faced trial on the contempt charge in a packed central courtroom before U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King. The jury, who all knew the aging mobster by reputation, convicted him. King sentenced him to one year and a day in prison, but allowed him to stay free on bond at Rosen’s request while he appealed the conviction. If he lost the appeal, King said, Lansky would have to surrender to start his prison term.
A grateful Lansky thanked the judge, King recalled on Tuesday. “He looked at me dead serious, and said ‘Judge, I will not let you down.’ ’’
Lansky won his appeal on the contempt conviction, but stood trial again in the skimming case in Miami. He was acquitted of tax-evasion charges in 1973. A decade later, Lansky died at 80 in Miami Beach.
Years after the contempt trial, King said he asked Rosen if he correctly heard what his client had said to him in court. Rosen told the judge: “Yes, and he meant it.”
King praised Rosen as the “go-to” criminal defense attorney of his generation.
“Before there was Jay Hogan and Roy Black, there was David Rosen,” King said, referring to two high-profile criminal defense lawyers in Miami.
The family is holding a private service. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to Legal Services of Greater Miami, 3000 Biscayne Blvd., Miami, FL 33137.