The following is an excerpt from pages 85 through 87 of a book written by New Jersey criminal defense lawyer
John W. Hartmann, Esq., Jacket: The Trials of a New Jersey Criminal Defense Attorney:
“The best lawyer I ever knew worked at the public defender’s office. His name was Marty Matlaga, and the man was a trial machine. When I met him, he was approaching his 100th criminal jury trial and was, as I recall, on a winning streak of 10 consecutive not guilty verdicts—a remarkable number, since most defense attorneys are lucky to win one-third of their cases. Extremely successful high profile attorneys in private practice, who have the luxury of picking and choosing which cases they will try, may win 50 percent of the time. But here’s Marty, taking all sorts of crappy public defender cases to trial and winning almost all of them—and I’m not talking about cases where you get not guilty verdicts on the serious charges but go down on the lesser offenses. I mean straight, run-the-field not guilty verdicts.
Defense lawyers have different definitions of a “win.” For some, a split verdict is a win. For others, keeping the jury out for over an hour before it comes back with a guilty verdict is a win. A while back, the Mercer County prosecutor’s office liked to say it had a conviction rate at trial of 90 percent, which sounded impressive until you got behind the numbers. The office considered any conviction in an indictment as a win. Thus, if a defendant was charged with a triple homicide and was declared not guilty of all three murders but convicted on a fourth degree weapons offense, it was chalked up as a win. Marty’s standard was much higher: It was only a win if he walked his client out the door after the verdict.
When it came to trial advocacy, Marty had it. Of course, you can never define “it,” a rare quality that you know when you see it. Kenny Weiner was a great lawyer, but he would lose cases; he didn’t quite have “it.” In my career, I’ve seen only two lawyers other than Marty who possessed the elusive “it,” and they are not the attorneys you might think of. One has a small practice, and the other is a public defender in another county. Having “it” doesn’t necessarily result in a lot of wealthy clients or a high-profile career.
Marty Matlaga had a real connection with juries; they just loved him. It was easy to see why. He was—and is—a pretty big guy, six foot one or better, and his cowboy boots and full head of hair make him seem even taller. When he walked into a courtroom, he owned it. Whether it was a status conference for a fourth degree offense or a murder trial, he just had the presence. And when it came to advocating for his client, he was always respectful but never took shit from any judge. Some judges accepted Marty on his terms, while others made no secret of their contempt for his approach. Marty couldn’t care less what anyone else thought.
When it came to dressing, Marty was unusual. He rarely wore a suit, even at trial. He usually dressed in khakis and a tweed jacket or blazer. What really made Marty stand apart, though, was his tie. He almost always wore the same tie: light blue with a picture of Elmo on it, as in Elmo from Sesame Street. It was bizarre. You would think a juror would look at that crazy tie with the big red fuzzy thing on it and just assume the lawyer was a nut and tune out anything he said. Not the case. For whatever reason, the tie worked. Marty was the gunslinger in the Elmo tie.
In addition to possessing natural talent, Marty worked extremely hard; nobody knew a file better than he did. Tom told me he once took a friend to the public defender’s office on a Saturday night around 8:00 pm to show him where he worked. Inside they found Marty preparing for a trial. (And, remember, he was a government employee!)
The Middlesex public defender’s office had a great sense of camaraderie. The secretary at the front desk controlled an office-wide intercom system, and whenever a trial went the right way for one of the attorneys, she’d put on her best sportscaster’s voice and announce that so-and-so “got a not guilty verdict!” The office would erupt into cheers. On those occasions when I heard “John Hartmann got a not guilty verdict!” and the ensuing acclamation, it was the best feeling in the world—like Rocky Balboa must have felt after he laid out Mr. T. (All that was missing was “Eye of the Tiger” playing in the background.) Far more often, however, I would be sitting in another lawyer’s office or in the library when the announcement came that “Marty got another not guilty!” After cheering along with the rest, I’d pop into Marty’s office to congratulate him and talk about his latest triumph. It was always something special.”