Sunday, December 9, 2012

Lawyers for the Defense in the John Norman Collins Case

John Norman Collins' legal team - Neil Fink and Joseph Louisell - June 1970

Immediately after John Norman Collins was arrested on July 30, 1969, his mother Loretta retained the legal services of Robert Francis and John M. Toomey of Ann Arbor, Michigan. 

A week later on August 7 during a preliminary examination, Mr. Toomey told presiding Washtenaw County Circuit Judge Edward D. Deake that he had discussed withdrawing from the case with Collins and his mother. The reason given was lack of funds and Mrs. Collins' "inability to undertake further financial liability."

"John will benefit by a court-appointed attorney because this will give him the right to a lot of things, such as the court paying for independent blood tests, ballistic tests, and fingerprints," Toomey explained. "Mrs. Collins indicated that she might not be able to afford this type of work and wanted a court appointed attorney." 

The judge agreed, and on August 12, 1969, a three-judge Circuit Court panel appointed Richard W. Ryan to handle the case. Ryan asked Francis and Toomey (Collins' original attorneys) to stay on as co-counsels at county expense to assist him with the defense.

Ryan and his team were on the case for only a couple of months when Ryan began to have doubts about his client. He requested Collins take an off the record polygraph (lie detector) test. Collins agreed but Ryan refused to disclose the results. 

When conferring afterwards with the family in the judge's chambers, Ryan suggested a "diminished capacity" plea for an insanity defense. Mrs. Collins flew into a rage and fired him on the spot.

Then The Detroit News reported on November 25, 1969, that Joseph W. Louisell and Neil Fink from Detroit had agreed to defend Collins after conferring with Mrs. Collins and other relatives over a two week period. It was agreed that they were to take over the case on December 1st.  

When Neil Fink was asked by the press how Mrs Collins could afford the highest priced law firm in the state of Michigan, when she had plead poverty in open court only months before, he made no comment.

The Detroit Free Press reported the next day that "Mrs. Collins, who is a waitress, reportedly has received a pledge from a national magazine for a large sum of money in exchange for the exclusive rights to her son's story." No evidence of such an offer exists. 

Enter the man who has been described as "Michigan's Perry Mason," Joseph Louisell, the Detroit area's Mafia mouthpiece. In the decade before the Collins' case, he was best known for defending reputed Mafia figures including Pete Licavoli, Anthony and Vito Giacalone, and Matthew (Mike, the Enforcer) Rubino. All of these men were identified as Mafia chieftains in testimony before the U.S. Senate in 1963.

The fifty-three year old father of ten, five boys and five girls, Louisell  had a "hefty figure" with a "round jowly" face that was familiar to Detroit courtroom observers who watched him build a strong reputation as a prominent criminal lawyer.

He gained fame for his successful 1949 defense of Carl E. Bolton and Carl Renda, both charged with shooting United Auto Workers President Walter Reuther in the back.

Another notorious case was the acquittal of blond and beautiful Nelle Lassiter, who was charged with conspiring with her lover to dispose of her husband's body, used car dealer, Parvin (Bill) Lassiter.

Some of Louisell's critics have complained of his courtroom theatrics. "All trial lawyers are ham actors at heart. Especially me, I guess," he said. "Normally 65% of my practice is in civil and corporate law. That's where the money is. But criminal law has some kicks. That's for fun." 

Neil Fink was a thirty year old junior partner in the firm of Louisell and Barris. He assisted his senior partner and handled all the pre-trial examinations and defense motions. 

He stayed active in the case while his boss was recuperating from a heart attack he had on February 2, 1970. Louisell's doctor said he would permit Louisell to return to work on April 1. Fink handled the entire Collins case load for a couple of months

Rumors circulated about how a waitress at Stouffer's in downtown Detroit could afford such a high priced legal firm. Just for the record, Mrs. Loretta Collins refinanced her home in Center Line for an undisclosed amount to pay for the estimated $15,000 it would take to cover her son's legal fees. 

(Next post: The Prosecution Team for the People against John Norman Collins)