Law School alum speaks on ethics, criminal defense

By John Minnis

Legal News

Defending Stephen Grant--the Washington Township man who murdered and dismembered his wife, Tara Grant, in 2007--was the ethical thing to do.

Defense attorney Stephen Rabaut offered that and other anecdotes and tidbits of advice recently to students at the Auburn Hills campus of Cooley Law School.

The Wednesday, Oct. 7, luncheon talk was part of the "Integrity in Our Communities" speaker series hosted by law school's Center for Ethics, Service, and Professionalism. Previous speakers have included Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Marilyn Kelly and past State Bar of Michigan President Ed Pappas.

Auburn Hills Dean John Nussbaumer, on behalf of Amy Timmer, associate dean of Students and Professionalism, introduced Rabaut, who graduated from Cooley Law School in 1980. Nussbaumer also introduced Flint Circuit Judge Joseph Farah, who sits on Cooley's board of directors and teaches an evidence problems course at the school.

Nussbaumer told the students that knowledge, skills and ethics are the three pillars of being "the best lawyer you can be."

"Our system does not do its job without a good and ethical public defender," he said, "and without a good and ethical prosecutor."

Rabaut is a solo practitioner in Sterling Heights, practicing exclusively in criminal defense representation in both state and federal courts. Most recently, he was the 2008 recipient of the Leonard R. Gilman Award from the Federal Bar Association for the Eastern District of Michigan, which is presented to an outstanding practitioner of criminal law.

Nussbaumer said he asked former Assistant U.S. Attorney Alan Gershel, chief of the Criminal Division of the Detroit office before retiring last year, what he thought about Rabaut. Gershel, now a professor at Cooley, credited Rabaut as a hardworking defense attorney who "while aggressively represents his clients, is calm and professional." He further cited Rabaut's ability to negotiate potentially acrimonious cases.

Perhaps Gershel's greatest compliment to his frequent courtroom opponent was that should he (Gershel) or one of his family members get into trouble, "Steve would be on the very short list of federal defense attorneys I would call."

Rabaut graduated from Cooley before the new Auburn Hills campus was built.

"I'd heard about it, but I'd never seen it. I gotta tell you," he told the students, "you have it made. It's a beautiful facility."

He reminded the students that from the time they are children, they were told that there is nothing more important than honesty. That goes even more so for attorneys. He urged the future lawyers to always tell the truth, even if it means telling a judge they are not prepared or that they cannot make a court date because of a golf game or other personal business.

"Every single thing you say has to be above reproach," he said. "Chances are they may never catch up with you on that, but when they do, they'll never believe anything you say again."

Rabaut echoed Dean Nussbaumer's comments.

"If everybody does their job right, this system works most of the time," he said. "Even if everybody does their job right, can we still have wrongful convictions or acquittals? Certainly. But I firmly believe that if everybody does their work with honesty and integrity, the system works."

Rabaut urged struggling young attorneys to adhere to a strict code of ethics.

"You might be starving," he said, "but don't become stupid."

Unlike some defense attorneys, Rabaut said he does not challenge defendants who initially are not truthful. He pointed out that court-appointed attorneys are often thought of as part of the system and not trusted.

Given patience, he said, defendants come around to seeing that their defense attorney is their savior.

"I'll guarantee you," he said, "when the individuals gain faith in you, they will tell you."

Rabaut said he urges clients to tell him everything, no matter how bad it is.

"I think I'm a good enough lawyer," he said. "It is what it is, and I'll give you a strong defense regardless."

He said some attorneys do not want to know whether their clients did it or not. That way they can put them on the stand without subourning perjury. Rabaut said he would rather know and not put the client on the stand.

"Even if you know your client did it," he said, "I don't think the rules of ethics prevent you from cross examining witnesses. As a lawyer I have a right and a duty to challenge the evidence."

Rabaut pointed out that it is only natural that defense attorneys become friends with prosecutors, judges and police officers.

"The bottom line is I'm still there to do my job, and they are there to do their job," he said.

Sometimes, he said, people shopping for an attorney will tell him that a lawyer down the street says he knows the judge or the prosecutor or the police officer and that he can 'get rid of it.'"

"I tell them they had better go with him then," he said, "but before you hand over the money, I'd have him put that promise in writing."

Rabaut does not believe such attorney misrepresentations happen often.

"Word gets around," he said, "and the attorney's reputation sinks. Nobody wants to hear that. The system works. I never went before a dishonest judge, at least not that I was aware of."

When first asked to take the Grant murder case, Rabaut said he did not want it. Then he decided that if his partner Gail Pamukov, who is involved in the Innocence Project, helped, he would take it. She didn't want it either.

They were discussing it when their third partner, Mark Pellechia, observed, "I don't think you have a choice. Do you have an ethical reason not to represent Stephen Grant?"

The partners took on the case, which some legal observers said was fraught with prosecutorial overzealousness, if not misconduct, and media sensationalism. It seemed everything was being disclosed to the press in violation of the rules of professional conduct.

Rabaut found himself in the hot seat when he agreed to meet with a television reporter to discuss the importance of defense attorneys. While Rabaut said he never once discussed the Grant case, the video editors juxtaposed his comments with items from the Grant case to make it appear as if he were discussing the case in violation of a judge's order.

Rabaut called on Geoffrey Fieger to represent him, and it worked.

While Rabaut and Pamukov fronted the out-of-pocket costs and tried the case, that was not enough. They needed a law student to help.

"It was one of the most exhaustive cases I've ever worked on," he said. "We couldn't have done this without a Cooley law student's help."

That student was Hans Chen, who is now finishing his third year at the Auburn Hills campus.

Chen was particularly helpful in that nearly everything involved in the case was stored on some type of electronic media. As is often the case, the various media files were not compatible with the law firm's computers and software. Chen was called on to make it work.

Grant's audio confession, for example, was stored on a CD. However, the defense attorneys could not get it to play on their computers. It turned out that Rabaut's equipment did not have the proper audio driver. Chen discovered the problem and downloaded the proper driver.

"I would have never known anything about that," Rabaut said. "Hans was an enormous asset in the case."

Chen was also tasked with gathering all the local print and broadcast media reports in the defense attorneys' unsuccessful bid for change of venue. He was asked his opinion in jury selection and other matters. He made poster board presentations for the jury. Chen figures he spent some 500 hours on the case--without pay and without course credit.

"It was a learning experience," Chen said of the case and of nearing the completion of law school. "It's been a good trip."

For his part, Rabaut told Chen that if he ever needs help or references, "just call us."

When asked if he planned to go into criminal defense work, Chen said, "I don't know. We'll see."