Lawyer's Wife's Slaying Reminds Legal Experts of Potential Perils

The slaying of the wife of a California lawyer known for taking high-profile cases has made some legal experts reflect on the potential dangers of their work.

Defense attorney Daniel Horowitz told police he found the body of his wife, Pamela Vitale, at home on Saturday night. Vitale had been beaten to death, coroners determined, and there was initial speculation that her slaying was related to Horowitz's work.

Horowitz has represented known drug dealers, murderers and other hardened criminals, and provided legal analysis in several trials, most notably the Scott Peterson case. He also has defended former Ukrainian Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko in a money-laundering and fraud trial. In May, a judge threw out half of the convictions against Lazarenko, who is under house arrest in the Bay Area.

Police are not commenting publicly on the investigation or a possible motive, and there are reports they are focusing on a potential suspect who is not tied to Horowitz's work. Some experts say that while Vitale's slaying may have been a random act of violence, it is a reminder that attorneys can be targeted because of their views.

"It's easy to think at first that it could be related to his work, as criminal defense attorneys often deal with very dangerous people on a daily basis," said Jami Floyd, an anchor for Court TV and a former criminal defense and civil attorney. "I can tell you that my father was none too pleased when he learned that I was becoming a criminal defense attorney. As a legal analyst, I often get messages from viewers who disagree with my views as a criminal defense attorney. We live in a time where things are very much in favor of the victim and people really don't want to hear the side of a defendant.

"For criminal defense attorneys, once you get to know them, it's not about going to the courtroom," Floyd continued. "It's about preserving Constitutional rights, representing the disenfranchised, the ostracized, like Scott Peterson, making sure everyone has their right to a fair trial."

Guilt by Association

Floyd said that sometimes people fail to recognize that attorneys are only instruments of the justice system and make them synonymous with the clients they represent. They believe a defense attorney and his client share the same values, which is not necessarily true. The more heinous the crime, the more hatred there is toward the defendant and his attorney.

However, anyone in any given case can become a target. Vitale's killing immediately sparked memories of the tragedy that struck U.S. District Judge Joan Humphrey Lefkow when she found her mother and husband slain in her home earlier this year. Authorities determined their deaths were linked to a man whose civil case was dismissed by Lefkow and who later killed himself at a traffic stop in Wisconsin.

Lefkow also was targeted by white supremacist Matthew Hale, who is serving a 40-year sentence for soliciting an undercover informant to kill her in an unrelated case. Lefkow had upheld a higher court's ruling that forced Hale's white supremacist group to change its name in a trademark case.

In 2003, in footage captured by Court TV and broadcast nationwide, California attorney Gerald Curry was shot outside a courtroom at point-blank range by a man who was upset that Curry's legal fees were being paid from his trust fund by a judge's order.

Still, if the slaying ultimately is linked to Horowitz's work, many do not see any fallout in the profession.

"It will send shockwaves throughout the legal community if it is tied in any way to his work," said Steve Cron, a California-based criminal defense attorney. "But I don't think it will affect the way people do their jobs. I would be shocked if people started quitting, started leaving their profession. Let's just say that I'm not going to start changing the locks on my house."

Cron said that getting threats is practically normal for public defenders and prosecutors but is more common in divorce cases, where the disputes are more personal. He added that criminal defendants generally respect their attorneys if they believe they're working hard for them.

"In 30-plus years, I think I may have received two threats and I didn't think anything of it at the time," Cron said. "But if you're a defense attorney and you're doing your job to the best of your ability, your client will understand and respect that."

Husband Not a Suspect

Horowitz currently is defending Susan Polk, a Contra Costa woman accused of killing her therapist husband. On Monday, a judge declared a mistrial in Polk's case, citing excessive media coverage of Vitale's slaying.

Horowitz reportedly feared for his safety and had armed himself before his wife's slaying. He and Vitale were married for 10 years and were building a 7,000-square-foot dream home on a property that overlooks the San Francisco Bay area and is surrounded by pasture and a wooded canyon.

Neighbors told the San Francisco Chronicle that the property was so busy with contractors that the couple left a note explaining how to use the coded keypad to open their security gate. Court documents also indicate that they had feuded with a neighbor over his attack dog and his alleged drug use.

Horowitz's lawyer, Robert Massi, said in published reports Horowitz is not a suspect and has an alibi for his whereabouts in the hours before his wife was found. Horowitz, Massi said, had breakfast Saturday with him and then spent the afternoon working with colleagues on the Polk case before returning home and finding his wife that evening.

"Perhaps if anything can come from this, we should learn not to point the fingers right away at a husband or boyfriend in cases where women turn up dead," said Floyd. "All the legal pundits do it. We saw it in the case of that runaway bride [Jennifer Wilbanks] when some people were looking at the boyfriend and it hadn't even been determined that she was dead. Imagine how he felt once she turned up alive. So maybe we should all reconsider that tendency of pointing fingers at husbands right away in cases like this. Daniel would want it that way."