TAMPA — The accused and the wronged beat a path to Barry Cohen’s door.
The tenacious, canny criminal defense attorney took on pharmaceutical giants and law enforcement agencies. When judges and attorneys needed representation, they often reached out to him.
And when the odds seemed stacked against his clients, he would fight their case outside the courtroom, too.
When Steven and Marlene Aisenberg were the only suspects in the disappearance of their 5-month-old baby, Mr. Cohen’s defense included an appearance on Larry King Live. Charges were later dropped, and Mr. Cohen won the couple $3 million in legal fees.
But leukemia came with odds that not even the pugnacious Mr. Cohen could beat. He died Saturday (Sept. 22, 2018) at his home in South Tampa’s Hyde Park neighborhood. He was 79.
“It’s a huge loss for the legal community and all of Tampa,” said Hillsborough County’s State Attorney Andrew Warren, whom Mr. Cohen had supported in his bid for office. “His legacy is as a fighter, standing up for the weak and the marginalized and those who needed help.”
“One of Tampa’s treasures,” said Kevin Kalwary, a private investigator and former journalist who covered, worked with and had been friends with Mr. Cohen for 40 years.
“If he was your friend, he was your friend ‘til the end,” he said. “There was no wavering. Obviously, being the alpha dog adversarial lawyer that a number of trial lawyers are, he made enemies, and he would regret that they were enemies, but it never would have changed what he was doing. It was always for the client.”
Mr. Cohen learned last year that his myelodysplastic syndrome, a disease that affects normal blood cell production in the bone marrow, had progressed into full leukemia. His treatment at the Moffitt Cancer Center included a trial five-day-a-week chemotherapy regimen.
Illness meant the closure of his law firm, but Mr. Cohen couldn’t accept he had tried his last case. He hung onto a few clients hoping to work their cases from his Hyde Park home.
What he wanted most, he told the Tampa Bay Times in February, was more time with his family, including his wife, psychologist Barbara Casasa Cohen, and their son, Barry Alexander Cohen, 17.
As his illness worsened, he knew that he would not live to see Barry Alexander’s graduation from Berkeley Preparatory School. At his wife’s request, the school held a special graduation ceremony a few weeks ago. She expected a modest affair in a school office. Instead, she and her husband were ushered into an auditorium close to full with friends, family, music and food.
“My husband and I both teared up,” Casasa Cohen said “When we got in the car to drive home, he said, ‘Thank you for doing that. I can die a happy man.’ “
Cohen spent his last evening with his family and a few close friends. He had been mostly unconscious in recent days but rallied a little in those hours, his wife said.
“He was on his journey, but he knew who was there and who was speaking,” she said. “He hugged everyone and smiled and looked them in the eye.”
Mr. Cohen’s father, Irving P. Cohen, was a Brooklyn candy store owner before the family moved first to Jacksonville and later to Tampa. He later ran a scrap yard on Adamo Drive and worked as a cook. His mother, Rhea Cohen, became a successful local businesswoman and leader in the local Jewish community.
Mr. Cohen, their eldest child and only son, said his zeal for taking on authority came from the time when he saw his father was verbally abused and bullied by bosses while working in a kitchen. It affected him deeply, leaving him unable to abide bullies and pushing him into a law career that allowed him to take on authority.
“I swore I’d never be in a position to be bullied like that,” he told the Times in February.
After graduating from Plant High School, he served in the Coast Guard, graduated from Florida State University and earned a law degree at Mercer University in Georgia. After starting a law firm in 1975, he forged a reputation as an attorney who seldom lost, a trait that meant he was hired for some of the most high-profile cases in Tampa Bay.
They included Pinellas chiropractor William LaTorre, whose 35-foot boat hit a smaller vessel and killed four of the five teenagers onboard in 1989. LaTorre, who was charged with vessel homicide, was found not guilty after a six-week trial. He committed suicide in 2014.
When Hillsborough State Attorney E.J. Salcines was accused of case-fixing, Mr. Cohen took out a full-page newspaper advertisement to accuse then-U.S. Attorney Bob Merkle of a witch-hunt. No charges were brought.
Mr. Cohen kept elementary school teacher Jennifer Porter out of jail after her hit-and-run accident left two children dead. He represented Joel Miller, the University of South Florida football walk-on who school officials determined had been hit by head coach Jim Leavitt, leading to Leavitt’s dismissal in 2010.
His success was not a surprise to fellow attorney Steve Yerrid, who was still a rookie when he got to work with Cohen on a racketeering case.
“He had a marvelous gift of raw intellect, and he was able to apply that in a common-sense way that everyone could follow,” Yerrid said. “He was my dear, dear friend, and I will absolutely miss him terribly.”
Mr. Cohen’s approach was to out-work and out-think his opponents, a goal spelled out on his law firm’s web site for anyone with the temerity to work for him: “That means following Barry’s lead: working nights, weekends, whatever it takes,” the site reads. “It means reading every new book in Cohen’s extensive library dealing with jury selection, evidence, or other trial matters. It means doing all the things that other lawyers and law firms are simply unwilling or unable to do in order to be the best.”
His firm’s victories were commemorated in framed front pages from local and national publications that lined the walls of his law office and chronicled four decades of not-guilty verdicts and multimillion-dollar settlements.
But financial stresses took some of the gloss off that aura of success in recent years.
A lawsuit filed in 2014 by a disgruntled former employee revealed that Mr. Cohen owed financial firms about $35 million, which he said at the time was a result of his high-stakes litigation where attorney costs run up for years before a settlement is reached. His law firm had also “sold” anticipated legal fees at discounted rates, a way for law firms to create cash flow since banks are loathe to lend money on the basis of an expected settlement.
And in April, the owners of Fifth Third Central tower sued the Barry A. Cohen Legal Team claiming it owed them about $69,700 in rent on a penthouse office space.
Mr. Cohen, a Democrat, also liked to flex his muscles in the political realm, regularly supporting and advising liberal candidates in their bids for local, state and national positions, including 2004 presidential candidate John Kerry. Tampa City Council member Harry Cohen, who is not related to Mr. Cohen but who worked for him as a young lawyer from 1999 to 2005, recalled a constant stream of politicians in the office.
Once, U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the California representative who is now the Democratic leader in the U.S. House, swung through Tampa. Mr. Cohen, who at the time was unfamiliar with Pelosi, mispronounced her name.
She charmed him, Harry Cohen said, and the pair ordered smoothies up to his office. By the end of the meeting, they were good friends.
“Honey, honey, you’re some kind of woman,” Mr. Cohen told Pelosi, recalled the councilman. She left with a commitment from Mr. Cohen of $50,000.
The decline of Mr. Cohen’s health was well known, so his death did not come as a shock to those closest to him. But they all agreed it nonetheless left a gaping hole in a community he had so heavily influenced.
“It’s a devastating blow,” said Lyann Goudie, a private defense attorney who once worked for Mr. Cohen and remained friends.
“He was really larger than life,” Harry Cohen said. “It’s really hard to believe that somebody with that amount of energy and passion is gone. Because he was really a force of nature.”
Goudie recalled her final conversation with Mr. Cohen. The pair texted about two weeks ago. He said he was feeling weak, and she sent him a sad-faced emoji.
“Don’t be sad,” he told her. “I’ve lived my life exactly how I wanted to and I’ve made peace. I’m ready and everything’s going to be okay and know that I will always love you.”
Times staff writer Richard Danielson contributed to this report. Contact Christopher O’Donnell at [email protected] or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.