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Front Page - Friday, August 11, 2023

Playing defense just comes naturally to Levitt

Former Illini DB followed brother to law, Chattanooga

Lloyd Levitt has practiced criminal defense in Hamilton County for 40 years. As he approaches retirement, he says he’s looking forward to spending more time with his grandchildren and with a fishing pole in his hands. - Photo by David Laprad | Hamilton County Herald

Before Lloyd Levitt defended accused murderers, rapists and thieves in Hamilton County courtrooms, he was a 6-foot-1, 185-pound starting cornerback for the Illinois Fighting Illini. Levitt was no garden-variety cornerback, either, but the kind who grew up playing 16-inch softball with bare hands in the shadow of the Chicago skyline and had no qualms about tackling one of Woody Hayes’ pass receivers at the very feet of the infamously hotheaded college football coach.

“I ran past a bunch of Buckeyes that could’ve blocked me and tackled their receiver,” Levitt, 66, recalls as he tells the story of a game between Illinois and Ohio State one season before Hayes punched a Clemson player during the 1978 Gator Bowl and ended his career. “Hayes ran onto the field, grabbed one of his guards and shouted, ‘Why didn’t you block him?’ If he’d punched me instead, I’d be famous.”

Despite the young Levitt’s imposing physicality, he had no designs on playing professional football. Instead, motivated by what he coins the “ridiculous commercials” of that time, he saw himself becoming an ad man as he studied marketing at the University of Illinois.

“I’m a good writer,” Levitt says as he lowers his still-tall frame into a chair in his second-floor office in a converted Vine Street house. “And whenever I’d watch a commercial, I’d say, ‘That’s super lame. I could do better than that.’”

However, when Levitt learned the only jobs he could land as a marketing graduate were in sales, he was out. His father was a salesman, he recalls, and Levitt knew that line of work was not for him.

“My dad traveled a lot during the week and then came home on the weekends and bitched about his bosses cheating him and his customers being stupid. Why would I want to do that?”

Levitt’s older brother, Martin, suggested an alternative. The elder sibling had graduated from the University of Tennessee College of Law and was practicing in Chattanooga with criminal defense attorney Leroy Phillips. He told Levitt he should attend law school and join him.

Having no other discernible options, Levitt traced his brother’s footsteps from Skokie, Illinois – the Chicago suburb where their parents had raised them – to Knoxville and then to Chattanooga, where he set up a practice with only a wall between himself and Phillips.

Being in close proximity to the attorney Levitt calls “one of the best lawyers to ever practice in Chattanooga” had its perks. Not only did Phillips serve as a mentor to Levitt, but Levitt says he benefited from Phillips’ predilection for using “colorful language.”

“I’d be sitting here with my one client that month, and as I told them I was going to charge them $300, Leroy would be yelling at his clients on the phone, telling them to bring him the f’ing money they owed him, or he was going to withdraw from their case.”

While Levitt says Phillips could be convincing when speaking with a client who was in arrears, he chose to graft other lessons the veteran attorney taught him onto his practice. As Levitt watched Phillips try high-profile cases (including the 1988 Bobby Hoppe trial, in which a Chattanooga grand jury indicted Hoppe 31 years after he shot and killed Don Hudson, a reputed bootlegger who’d dated his sister, during a late-night confrontation), he learned how to select a jury, cross-examine witnesses and craft a closing argument.

“Leroy was brilliant at cross-examining witnesses,” Levitt says with the kind of smile that fond memories form. “He’d get in your face, and when he was done you’d admit you were the murderer.”

Levitt sounds vaguely self-effacing as he says he’s never “tried a case as famous as the ones (Phillips) tried.” Yet his talents have been suited for the cases he’s taken, which have ranged from simple traffic violations to first degree murder, he says.

“I can argue until the cows go home, I can think on my feet and I can come up with creative ways to defend or to negotiate cases.”

As an example of the latter, Levitt offers his approach to a case in which his client faced what appeared to be a slam-dunk guilty verdict after being charged with participating in a masked robbery of a Hardee’s.

“The whole thing was on video,” Levitt says. “It was a total loser.”

To plant seeds of reasonable doubt among the jury, Levitt suggested the investigating detective failed to thoroughly examine the crime scene.

“The prosecution said the robber looked to be the same size as my client. So, when the detective took the stand, I asked him why he didn’t fingerprint the scene.”

Not realizing Levitt had set a trap, the detective said nothing needed to be fingerprinted. Levitt then pointed out how the robber placed his hands on a metal table.

After deliberating the case, the jury delivered a ‘not guilty’ verdict.

“Jurors are used to watching TV shows in which the forensics win the case. So, I’ll pick on what the state’s witnesses didn’t do.”

Wary of sounding like he’s patting himself on the back for being clever, Levitt says he’s only as effective as the tools in his toolbox. Among these are mock trials.

Levitt hired Chattanooga’s very own Bull – trial consultant Dr. David Ross – to help him test a case that involved a vehicular death. Key to the prosecution’s case was a woman who said she saw Levitt’s client climbing out of the driver’s side of the vehicle following an accident. Although the witness had a record of writing bad checks, Levitt says he felt like his hands were tied when it came to discrediting her.

“I was worried the jury would think I was picking on her if I questioned her about the bad checks because she didn’t have any incentive to lie about the crash,” Levitt remembers. “But when I asked the jurors about this during the mock trial, they said I absolutely needed to bring it up.”

When Levitt cross-examined the witness about her criminal record during the actual trial, the jury rejected her testimony and delivered a verdict of not guilty.

Levitt might be leery of sounding self-congratulatory, but as he changes the topic to how he uses humor to break the ice with potential jurors, his grin suggests he might also be a little pleased with himself.

“I had a case in which a nurse had sliced up his boss with a boxcutter during an argument. Unfortunately, my client’s last name was Savage. When we were picking the jury, I said, ‘I was going to use the French pronunciation of my client’s last name – ‘sauvage.’ But I’m going to get the elephant out of the room: His last name is Savage.’”

Levitt says he always strives to make an immediate connection with the people who could be the ones to decide the outcome of his cases.

“If I’m distant or detached, they might sit there thinking I’m a scummy criminal defense lawyer who’s trying to get his client off.”

Levitt says his job is not to ensure killers get away with murder but to achieve the best possible result for his clients. He begins by inviting them to tell their side of the story (he does not ask them if they committed the crime with which the prosecutor has charged them) and usually ends with a plea negotiation.

“If you’re charged with aggravated assault carrying three to 15 years, I’ll try to work it down to a simple assault that carries 11 months and 29 days. When the proof is strong, I look for a way to achieve a better result than my client is facing.”

Case in point, Levitt’s defense early in his career of a man accused of first-degree murder in Alton Park. The prosecution alleged Levitt’s client had stabbed a young man 11 times while confronting him about a separate incident involving a family member. The killing took place during the day and in the presence of four witnesses, Levitt says.

In other words, it was a “total loser.” However, after Levitt tried the case, the jury said his client was guilty of voluntary manslaughter.

“Instead of life in prison, my client wound up with a four-year sentence. When he heard the verdict, he turned his head toward me and said, ‘Thank you.’ I considered that verdict a victory.”

Levitt says he also left the courtroom believing justice had been achieved.

“To me, justice is getting a fair result for a client, or if we have to go to trial, presenting the best case we can and raising reasonable doubt. And juries usually get it right. They pick up on things you didn’t see, or a piece of evidence you didn’t realize was important. You can’t get 12 jurors to agree on a verdict unless the facts tilt that way.”

Convincing juries to side with his clients has rarely been easy, Levitt admits. Fortunately, two of his defining characteristics have often given him the fuel he’s needed to win: his hatred of losing and his competitive nature, both of which were evident in his efforts as a Fighting Illini.

While helpful, these traits could have clouded his vision and convinced him he was locked in a personal battle with the prosecutorial machinery in a case, but this never happened.

“A trial isn’t a competition between another attorney and me; I’m not trying to beat anyone, I’m trying to represent my client to the best of my ability and get the right result. I can think of a number of times when I worked my ass off and got good results, but it was never about me.”

As Levitt thinks back on his career, he says no one has criticized him for defending people accused of violent and sometimes hideous crimes, as most people understand everyone has the right to be presumed innocent and to receive a competent defense. He also waves off a question about regrets he might have about cases he lost or bungled, saying no miscarriages of justice come to mind.

Rather, as Levitt watches twilight cast a darkening hue over his career, he says he’s grateful for having had a positive impact on the lives of at least some of his clients.

This is the moment for which Levitt has saved the story of Raven, a young woman he first represented in a gang-related shooting. After successfully defending her in that case, he represented her in another matter that involved her boyfriend’s attempts to deliver and sell cocaine.

Levitt bristles as he recalls the details of the case and the district attorney’s five-year effort to convict Raven of what he says were trumped up charges.

“She rented a car and then let her boyfriend take it out. While he was driving, the cops chased him and he threw some cocaine over a fence,” Levitt begins.

“The charge against her was the most ridiculous I’d ever seen. How could she be responsible when she wasn’t in the car? And there was zero proof she’d rented the vehicle so he could commit crimes?”

Levitt speculates the DA’s actual target was the boyfriend, who’d allegedly killed a key witness in a murder case. By charging Raven, Levitt reasons, the DA hoped she might turn on him.

Levitt scoffs at the notion with fresh bluster. “Why would she turn on her own boyfriend when he’d allegedly killed someone who was going to turn on him?”

As the case wore on, Levitt defended Raven in a variety of other matters, many of which were assaults that stemmed from confrontations that began on social media. However, as he counseled her, “something clicked” and she did an about face, he says.

“She started working at T-Mobile and became the top salesperson. Then she earned a degree that allows her to operate a senior citizens nursing service and started a business. She has eight employees and is kicking ass. I’m proud of her.”

Getting Levitt to admit he’s proud of himself would be a Herculean task. As he looks back on 40 years of defending people accused of committing crimes, the only light pat on the back he gives himself is for his ardent work ethic.

“I’ve worked some long hours, that’s for sure,” he says. “When I had a murder case in the early days, I might be at the office seven days a week and work until 9 o’clock at night. This isn’t a job you can do for 40 hours.”

If Levitt has had a true nemesis, it wasn’t the prosecutors he’s faced or the district attorney’s office, it was time. Like his father, his work often took him away from his wife of 43 years and his two children. However, even as he admits to wishing he’d taken more time off, he insists the long hours and time away from family come with the territory.

“Criminal defense is more stressful than any other job in the law because you’re dealing with a person’s life and liberty, and that’s a weighty thing. There have been highs and lows, and more time off would have been nice, but it’s been a fascinating ride.”

As Levitt has eased toward retirement, he says he’s given away “hundreds of thousands of dollars” worth of business to other attorneys. He’s still taking a limited number of cases to pay the bills at Levitt & Levitt, the firm he and his brother have owned for decades, but once they sell the building, even that could end.

“Paul Campbell, Jr., practiced into his nineties,” Levitt says, dropping the name of the legendary Chattanooga attorney who died in 2012 at the age of 96. “My generation has worked hard, too, but I’d like to see my grandkids and go fishing more often.”