Inside Story: Joseph TacopinaWith his outsize personality and penchant for taking on cases no one else will touch, attorney Joseph Tacopina—who's represented everyone from Lillo Brancato to Foxy Brown to ex–police chief Bernard Kerik—strikes a controversial figure in the media, the courtroom and now with the very clients who made him a success.
Photo: Jeremy Liebman
Someone on a blog once vowed to drink my bathwater," says New York's—and it could be argued, America's—most high-profile criminal defense lawyer, Joseph Tacopina. It's Friday, January 9, mere hours after the sentencing of his client, accused cop killer Lillo Brancato, and the attorney is relaxing in his corner office high atop Madison Avenue. Well-groomed and clad in a crisp navy suit, he still carries the hulking, solid physicality of his high-school wrestling days.
On his rise to prominence over the past decade in both the courtroom as well as the world of TV punditry, Joseph's been called "the pinnacle of excellence" by USA Today, the Donald Trump of the legal world by The New York Times and "one of the greatest defense attorneys of all time" by Fox News host Sean Hannity. Decorating his office is a framed GQ profile of him with the headline "1-800-Save-My-Ass." But lately the man who made a career out of defending the police has found himself on the other side of law enforcement's good favor.
Ever since the mid-'90s, when he was a Kings County prosecutor–turned–criminal defense attorney, Joseph has famously been the go-to guy for cops in trouble. In 1995, he secured the acquittal of one of the Morgue Boys (a group of NYPD cops the Feds believed were shaking down drug pushers and work-a-day citizens alike). In 1999 and 2002, he won acquittals for Officer Thomas Wiese, accused of beating and obstruction in the Abner Louima case—in which Haitian immigrant Louima was hospitalized for two months, following his brutalization in police custody. Joseph's handiwork also helped ensure that Detective Anthony Vasquez—the officer who shot and killed an unarmed civilian, Patrick Dorismond, near Times Square in 2000—was never charged with a crime.
But his most recent headline-grabbing case came late last year, when he defended a junkie actor who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. The crime happened back in December 2005, when a drug-sick Brancato, who starred in the 1993 movie A Bronx Tale, and pal Steven Armento set out on an early-morning search for pills at Brancato's friend's Bronx apartment, and found only a neighbor, armed off-duty police officer Daniel Enchautegui. Thinking Brancato and Armento were robbers, Joseph claimed in court that Enchautegui opened fire, hitting Brancato twice, before he and Armento began shooting at each other at close range. Enchautegui was killed in the battle. While Armento was convicted of first-degree murder, Joseph's defense resulted in an attempted burglary conviction for the actor, instead of the second-degree murder charge prosecutors had hoped for. In a bit of a victory, Brancato was sentenced to 10 years in prison, instead of the maximum 15. The whole affair seemingly did not sit well with the boys in blue. The president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, Patrick J. Lynch, even publicly accused Joseph of bad behavior in the courtroom, saying, "a professional attorney laughing as if this was a joke in front of a dead man's family is the most insulting thing that ever happened in front of a bench in this state." A spokesman for the PBA tells Page Six Magazine Lynch does not wish to comment any further on the matter because he doesn't want to give Tacopina any more press coverage.
Joseph denied the claim and insists he's still on the right side of the thin blue line. "Look," Joseph says, "I've represented more police officers than most defense attorneys ever have. [Brancato's family] had to ask me six times to take Lillo's case before I would even go see him," he says. "If I thought someone was guilty of killing a police officer, I wouldn't want to represent them. When he told me the story, I got such a visceral reaction that this kid was also a victim of sorts." He calls Brancato's lesser conviction "satisfying, but it was a weird verdict." His posture stiffens up a bit as he says, "I didn't get happy. It was filthy stuff. A tragedy."
Joseph is no stranger to tragedy—or infamy. Among his most high-profile clients: Long Island teen Diana Bianchi, the girl in the Peter Cook–Christie Brinkley love triangle; Joran van der Sloot, the Dutch teenager arrested on suspicion of killing American Natalee Holloway in the Caribbean in 2005 ("My initial response was, 'The piece of crap who killed that girl in Aruba?' "); rapper Foxy Brown, whom Joseph helped keep out of jail following her '04 scuffle with nail salon workers; and Michael Jackson's assistant Frank Tyson, whom he defended on charges that he was paid off by the singer to help cover his alleged molestation attempts. (Joseph's office is decorated with a painting of him in the courtoom near a ghoulish-looking Jackson on the witness stand.) "I like a challenge," he shrugs, confirming that he's happiest taking on cases no one thinks can be won.
Still, you wouldn't call him an underdog so much as a guy who doesn't know the word "no." Whether that attitude—which comes across in his talking-head appearances on shows like 20/20 and On the Record—is viewed as aggressive or charming is debatable. But "the same flair and confidence that makes him good on TV makes him a good trial lawyer," says his friend, former MSNBC commentator Dan Abrams. "Joe instills a sense of confidence in his clients and they feel like they're in good hands."
Joseph and his sister were born to working-class Italian immigrants in the Sheepshead Bay area of Brooklyn. He talks of "paying my way with student loans" through Brooklyn's prestigious Poly Prep County Day School (where he was a champion wrestler), Skidmore (where the true-crime book Fatal Vision triggered an interest in law) and the University of Bridgeport law school. He still identifies himself as a regular guy, who learned life's lessons on the playgrounds of Brooklyn. He credits sports for shaping his core scruples, saying, "There are certain values—respect for others, the value of competition, honesty—that not everyone follows, but were something I leaned on."
He insists that he's "not a Hamptons guy. I am lower middle class and will always be lower middle class." But he lives with his five kids and wife, Tish, (to whom, he says, he knew he was going to marry on their first date, while she was engaged to another man) in a large but cozy Westport, Conn., home that has an ice rink in the basement. He takes his 50-foot boat to Rhode Island. He speaks fluent Italian and his law firm keeps an office in Milan, where he works on civil cases. It was reported last May that he was working with investor George Soros to purchase the AS Roma soccer team. (Soros is out, and Joseph says he's now moving forward with a deal to buy the team Bologna FC 1909 and is confident all will be in place by March.) And he's traded in hockey for skiing: "My three sons and I all qualified last year for the national championships in Giant Slalom for NASTAR," Joe says. NASTAR is short for National Standard Race—a competitive system that allows skiers to see how they stack up against others across the country. So…lower middle class?
"I consider myself lower middle class from a social standpoint," Joe demurs, allowing, "from an economic standpoint, that's a different story. A lot of kids drove to Poly Prep in Mercedes, while I was riding my bike or taking the B64 bus. I remember wanting stuff, but I wanted to earn it. I'll never let that change. I'm attentive in making sure my kids don't slip into some silver spoon network."