Biglaw, Crime, In-House Counsel, Jury Duty, Trials, Violence

The Exonerated: A Lawyer Takes the Stand in His Own Defense — and Prevails

It’s rare for a lawyer to face criminal charges (even if you might get a different impression based on the content of our pages). It’s rare for a criminal case to go to trial (as opposed to being resolved through a plea agreement). It’s rare for a defendant to take the witness stand at his own trial. And it’s rare for such a defendant to win an acquittal.

But this is exactly what happened in the case of Bryan Brooks, which we covered last month. Brooks went into the courtroom and emerged victorious, but it was not an easy experience. When you’re the defendant as opposed to defense counsel, your life and liberty are on the line. Higher stakes would be hard to imagine.

I recently sat down with Bryan to hear the story of his harrowing journey through the criminal justice system….

First, a quick recap. As we mentioned in our prior story, Bryan Brooks has a most impressive résumé. After graduating from Columbia Law School, he worked for four years at Skadden Arps, where he focused on on intellectual property and technology transactional work. He speaks highly of the firm, particularly his practice group, and the training he received there. Following Skadden, Bryan went in-house to American Express, where he joined the general counsel’s office.

In June 2011, Bryan was involved in a fight at a bar here in Manhattan. The man with whom he fought, a fellow named Chaka Smith, suffered significant injuries — cuts to his face that had to be closed with stitches and staples. Prosecutors charged Bryan with assault, making the colorful, headline-grabbing allegation that he attacked Smith with a high-class weapon: a champagne flute.

Bryan went to trial. He took the stand. And he was acquitted of all charges. Given the unusual nature of these events, it sounded like a story worth telling. So I reached out to him, and he kindly agreed to an interview.

Last week, Bryan Brooks and I met up at a cafe near the offices of Above the Law. Bryan is African American, modest in height and build, with a shaved head and black glasses. He’s 37 years old but looks significantly younger. He definitely doesn’t look like a barroom brawler; instead, he has an academic air about him. He was on his way to a conference about criminal justice issues on the afternoon that we met, and he was dressed conservatively, in a blue shirt and dark blue sweater.

We began by discussing the night in June 2011 that started this whole 16-month ordeal. Bryan met up downtown with a group of friends for a thirtieth birthday celebration. The group gathered at the Thom Bar, a small, narrow bar on the second floor of the Thompson Hotel in Soho. After greeting the birthday celebrant, Bryan ordered champagne for toasting. Between around 12:30 and 2:30 in the morning on June 19, the group celebrated and had a good time, drinking and dancing.

At around 2:30 a.m., after Bryan paid the bill, he was speaking with another fellow in the party, who in turn pointed out to Bryan a man who was acting oddly and gesturing in Bryan’s direction. Bryan did not know the gesticulating man, but he knew one of the man’s companions, a woman whose sister Bryan used to date. Bryan went over to the group to see what might be the matter.

Bryan spoke briefly with the gesturing man — Chaka Smith, although Bryan didn’t know who Smith was at the time — and the conversation was not pleasant. Smith had had a fair amount to drink (at least nine drinks, according to Smith’s testimony at trial). After some angry words, Smith — a sizable fellow, standing about 6’3″ and weighing about 230 pounds — pushed Bryan back with one hand; Bryan stepped back. Smith shoved Bryan again, this time with both hands; Bryan fell back again. Smith then came forward again, a third time, and “immediately lunged forward” and “punched him [Bryan] in the face” (again according to Smith’s testimony).

Acting reflexively and on instinct, Bryan swung at Smith, landing a blow on Smith’s face. Bryan happened to be holding a champagne flute in his hand — although he wasn’t conscious of it at the time, and certainly wasn’t trying to use it as a weapon. Another man in Smith’s party — Smith’s roommate, as it turned out — grabbed Bryan from behind and threw him to the floor, in the process knocking over a champagne bucket containing a bottle and flutes. Smith dove to the floor as well.

Bryan and Smith were restrained. A bouncer removed Smith from the bar, and Bryan left the bar shortly thereafter. Later that night, at around four or five in the morning, one of Bryan’s friends who is also friends with Smith told Bryan that Smith suffered significant injuries and was in the hospital.

That Sunday, shortly after noon, Bryan called the police and advised them that he had been in a fight at a bar. At the time of his call, there was no open file on the incident, so the police told Bryan there was no reason for him to come into the station.

On the morning of Monday, June 20, Bryan went into work at American Express — where he was met by the head of Amex’s employment law group, accompanied by a senior representative from Amex’s security department. And that’s when the whole nightmare began….