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A skillful play of a race

July 12, 1999

In a trial with racial overtones involving white off-duty cop Michael Meyer shooting an unarmed black squeegee man, no one played the race card more skillfully than Meyer's white attorney, Murray Richman. His play: bringing in an ace black co-counsel, Anthony Ricco.

Richman, one of this town's more colorful - and successful - criminal attorneys, is too slick to acknowledge playing a race card. Rather, he says he brought in Ricco "to diffuse the racial issue."

He points out, however, that the dapper Ricco, with his bow tie, straw hat, shaved head and street-smart demeanor, acted in ways Richman says he could not because he is white.

It was Ricco who cross-examined the squeegee man, Antoine Reid, an admitted crack addict, alcoholic and welfare cheat with more than 20 arrests. "If I had been pitted against him, the issue of race would have come between us," says Richman. "Tony was able to play to his ego. I would not have been able to do that."

Says Ricco: "I felt his Reid's testimony was pivotal. My purpose was to refute the claim that Reid was just the nice homeless squeegee guy the prosecution said he was. I wanted to bring out who he truly was, that he lied to welfare officials and to himself . . . that he was a total drug addict."

Cajoled and baited by Ricco - who asked Reid why he had not retreated when an enraged Meyer jumped from his car and identified himself as a cop after Reid refused to stop soaping his windshield - Reid, who had described himself as a "nonviolent" person, answered, "It doesn't matter who he is. I don't move for nobody."

In his summation, Ricco labeled as "a cheap trick" the tactics of Bronx prosecutors to discredit a black defense witness who had voluntarily come forward to testify about his own encounter with a menacing Reid.

Asked to identify him in the courtroom, the witness, Thaddeus McGuire, mistakenly pointed to Reid's brother, who Ricco charged had been placed there to trick McGuire. (DA spokesman Steven Reed said the brother attended the trial every day.)

Citing Dr. Martin Luther King and his "law of unintended consequences," Ricco pointed out that of all the African-Americans in the courtroom - including the Rev. Herbert Daughtry, who also attended the trial each day - McGuire had pointed to someone "who looked like Reid." Rather than damaging McGuire's credibility, Ricco argued that this misidentification strengthened it.

Presiding Judge John P. Collins, who heard the case instead of a jury, bought it. In finding Meyer not guilty, he contrasted Reid's testimony as that of a "demure, quiet, polite homeless squeegee man anxious to cause no trouble" with that of McGuire, noting that Reid had acted "as a belligerent, emotionally disturbed individual appearing crazed ..."

Referring to McGuire, Collins said: "He is a black man who came to testify as a defense witnesss for a Caucasian off-duty police officer. . . . We can all take note of this remarkable individual and the lesson he has taught us about duty and honor."

To Try or Not to Try. Police spokeswoman Marilyn Mode's reluctance to say whether the department will now try Meyer on administrative charges, leading to his possible dismissal, indicates that Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has yet not decided what is best for Giuliani. Should public pressure build, Meyer will no doubt be tried before the department, where with a lower standard of proof than in a state courtroom it can take whatever action it feels it can get away with.

Already, the Daily News has weighed in with an editorial, saying that Collins exoneration of Meyer "does not relieve the department of its responsibility."

Then there are U.S. Attorney Zachary Carter's secret negotiations with the city on the subject of police brutality, the alleged failure of the Civilian Complaint Review Board and the mayor's own alleged failure of leadership. - - - Heard: Ex-Commissioner Ray Kelly on the Paris-to-Lyons express back at work attending an Interpol conference following heart-bypass surgery last month, saying he feels "amazingly strong."

Seen: Departing Chief of Department Louie Anemone, walking down the steps of One Police Plaza between two rows of white-gloved uniformed cops to his waiting patrol car with its "four-star" license plate. Joined by two of his minions and led by four motorcycle cops, sirens blaring, Louie set off to say farewell to his other commands around the city. And no, he doesn't get to keep the car.

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© 1999 Newsday, Inc. Reprinted with permission.