Power of Attorney
For Blake Ballin, cases can be a matter of life and death.
photograph by Larry Kuzniewski
Television crime dramas paint people as good guys and bad guys for the sake of entertainment, but in the real world of criminal defense, there’s only what’s in between.
As a criminal defense attorney, Blake Ballin says he’s learned to see clients as multifaceted and courtroom adversaries as friends.
“Very rarely do I have clients who are completely innocent,” says Ballin, the son of Leslie Ballin and grandson of Marvin Ballin, all of whom work together for the firm of Ballin, Ballin & Fishman.
“They may have been charged with being a drug dealer and they’re really a drug user. The ones who really make you nervous are the ones who come in the door who haven’t done anything wrong. It’s all rewarding because you feel like you’re doing something good for people.”
Ballin, a partner with the firm, works in a 12th floor office in a smoked-glass high rise with a clear view of 201 Poplar. His office is a sparse collection of contemporary art and college sports memorabilia.
He says while it was never assumed that he would follow in his father’s footsteps and join the family business, it was always somewhat likely.
“My mom always wanted me to be an orthodontist — no emergencies,” says Ballin. “I don’t think I was expected to be a lawyer, but my father and grandfather probably glamorized it a lot with stories around the dinner table. It gave me a nudge but not a push.”
Ballin graduated from Fordham Law School in New York and was licensed there, but on second thought came back to Memphis for the easier pace of life and the closeness of family. He’s been practicing with Ballin, Ballin & Fishman for the last eight years, taking everything from traffic ticket cases to one very notorious capital murder case.
“Dale Mardis is very intelligent and he certainly pled guilty to doing some things that were heinous, things that were indefensible,” says Ballin, referring to the Memphis man who was long suspected of killing code enforcement officer Mickey Wright, though a body was never found. “As a client, he was a complex and interesting individual.”
Mardis eventually settled his case in state court by pleading guilty to second degree murder and a sentence of 15 years. Later he was charged with federal civil rights violations for the same case, in which Ballin represented him. The case carried the death penalty and seemed headed for trial until it became clear that charges for another murder might be forthcoming. Mardis settled for life in prison instead.
Ballin has been asked more than a few times how he can defend people “like that,” and his answer is instantaneous.
“Everybody gets in trouble,” Ballin says. “Republicans, Democrats, rich folks, poor folks, black people, white people. It doesn’t mean they’re bad people, but they all need help from people like us.”
Nonetheless, it takes some finesse handling public perception in the case of high-publicity cases like the murder trial of Mary Winkler, which made national headlines, particularly after she was sentenced to time served — less than two years — for the shooting death of her husband.
For that Ballin looks to his father, who represented Winkler.
“My father certainly has a lot of experience dealing with the media, especially with the Winkler case,” says Ballin. “I’ve tried to watch him and the way he handles himself in front of the camera. There are some cases where you want to avoid [media coverage]. They’re so messy that there’s very little you can do to sway public opinion.”
And well-known cases tend to lead to more cases. The firm currently has four attorneys doing criminal defense cases and three doing civil cases. Another two were recently hired out of law school and will begin practice after passing the bar.
Ballin’s father and grandfather began working together in the 1970s and were joined by Randall Fishman, whom Ballin says is like an uncle to him, in the 1980s.
In criminal court, he says, the nuances are subtle and finding the right “nugget” of information can cast enough doubt to cause the District Attorney’s office to drop charges or dismiss a case altogether.
“There’s a lot of creativity that goes into the work we do, and I think the effort we put into each case makes a difference in the outcomes,” Ballin says. “Sometimes it’s just persistence.
“Part of it has to do with the fact that over at the courthouse, the prosecutors are dealing with such high volume, you really just need a little bit of information — a legal issue, a fact issue — to convince them that they don’t have a slam dunk and that’s what you use to settle the case.”
For example, in another murder case, the prosecution had an eyewitness in the room when a man was murdered allegedly by two brothers. With the help of investigators, Ballin was able to find a crack in the witness’ statement which turned the case on its head.
“We finally got the eyewitness to admit that he wasn’t exactly sure that his identification was correct,” said Ballin.
The case was dismissed.
Most, says Ballin, never make it to court. Though he says he loves trying cases for the chance of talking on his feet before an open courtroom, he only gets to trial with four or five cases a year. The firm only tries 15 to 20 a year out of hundreds.
“A lot has to go wrong before a case goes to trial,” said Ballin.
Once in court, the atmosphere is perhaps not as contentious as episodes of Law & Order would have people believe. A good criminal defense lawyer, says Ballin, knows how to cooperate.
“I consider most of these prosecutors to be friends,” says Ballin. “I see them every day. I negotiate with each of them on potentially hundreds of cases a year. It’s to everyone’s benefit to get along; it’s to my client’s benefit for me to get along with my adversaries. Even if it gets heated in court, we’re able to shake hands and have a beer afterwards.”
One thing he notices changing in recent years, though, is an increase in the use of audiovisual equipment by the prosecution, perhaps responding to a public which is centered around smart phones and iPads for hours every day.
“Seminars tell you about how visual everyone has become,” says Ballin. “I’m not as computer-savvy as I should be, but I hope my ability to connect verbally makes up for that.”
Recently Ballin attended a workshop in San Francisco in which he learned that in some jurisdictions, potential jurors are being researched on Facebook by prosecutors.
Still Ballin hopes to keep his practice as much a face-to-face practice as possible.
“I don’t think I’d be any other kind of lawyer if I couldn’t be a 201 lawyer,” Ballin says, referring to 201 Poplar, the address of the county’s criminal justice complex. “I’d find something else to do. I’m not a huge fan of the research and writing. I’m more of a fan of being on my feet, talking, being in trial, and negotiating and interacting with prosecutors. I’d rather do that than be behind a desk all day.”