February in Cleveland 1999, Rachel Weiser stepped out of the sleet and in through the front door of the Federal Courthouse on Superior Avenue. She was three months pregnant, suffering from morning sickness, and preparing to defend a member of the Youngstown mafia. The case had begun as the first federal death penalty charged in Cleveland. But as she walked in that morning, the stakes were not quite so high. The client faced life in prison, with no possibility of parole.
At 23-years-old, and just months removed from passing the Ohio bar exam, Rachel was stepping into the middle of one of the most widely publicized federal trials in Cleveland. This was to be the death of the Youngstown mafia.
Rachel sat down next to her client, Jeff Riddle. The government claimed (and the jury believed) that he was the hit man for the Youngstown mafia. He had once shot a lawyer in the leg just to get a case postponed. Sitting on the other side was her boss, Jay Milano, who was the lead chair for the defense.
She was nervous – but more.
“I was just enthralled the entire time,” Rachel said looking back at the case. “I was just out of law school, just passed the bar, and the first trial I worked on was this huge mafia case that was all over the news. Jay even made me do the interview with one of the local television stations. People watching the news that night had to be thinking, ‘Who is this girl?’ This was a huge case and here is this 23-year-old lawyer on television talking about it.”
As if those circumstances weren’t enough to get a young lawyer excited and intimidated, Rachel got to watch two of her former professors duke it out throughout the trial. The prosecutor and the defense lawyer together taught her how to try a case. “Jay, and the prosecutor for the case, James Wooley, were my professors for my trial tactics class just a year before when I was still in law school,” Rachel said. “There I was working my first case, that was this huge intimidating mafia case, with my two professors watching me.” She also got a chance to watch them. Was what they had taught her real, or a law school hypothetical that broke down in front of a jury?
The case was the product of a four-year FBI investigation of the mob in Northeast Ohio. In the months leading up to the trial, news outlets and newspapers prepared for what was called the last mafia trial in Cleveland, but then just before the trial started the biggest headline hit. The main defendant in the case, the don of the Youngstown Mafia, Lenny Strollo, had taken a plea deal with the Federal Prosecutors and would testify about everything he knew about the mob and the other defendants.
Suddenly the case was down to three men, Riddle and his cousin, Lavance Turnage, who were both accused of being the mafia’s muscle, and Bernard Altshuler (aka Bernie the Jew) who was accused of being an associate with the mob.
For six weeks the trial raged on as Rachel sorted through hundreds of sworn affidavits, kept track of evidence, and researched every law she could think of while her two former professors battled back and forth, cross-examining witnesses and pushing to make their cases.
“It was incredible. I was sitting in Federal Court with the top lawyers in the city, and sitting next to scary but also very savvy clients, who were all facing life sentences,” Rachel said. “Everything about it was intimidating, but at the same time it wasn’t intimidating. I was there with my teachers, with these respected attorneys who helped me.”
So the case that should have been the most intimidating case in the world for a young attorney, wasn’t.
It turned out to be a springboard for Rachel. She learned early on that if you are prepared and keep a cool head, you can always put on a good case for your client.
“I got to see lawyering at its best in that case,” Rachel said. “Too many attorneys make decisions and do things that aren’t in the best interests of their clients because they are intimidated, or scared and not prepared. You can’t let the fear of a case control you. You have to be so prepared that you never make a decision out of fear – you make decisions because you are prepared to make them.”
Rachel is not yet 35. She has a plaque on her desk: “You’re Rachel Weiser?” It’s the question she has been asked too many times by old lawyers who represent powerful clients and who are shocked to see this young woman in charge of the case against them. They always start with the dismissive, ” Young lady, I have been doing this for…”. That remark is quickly followed by an offer of $5,000.00 to settle the case. Then comes the admonishment, “If you know what is good for you, you will take it.”
Rachel has won multiple $1,000,000.00-plus judgments for her clients. There is nothing more satisfying than to see the look on the faces of these “experienced” lawyers when the jury announces the verdict.