He became famous defending ‘Algiers Motel’ cops. Deal with it.
Lippitt leans back in his corner office in downtown Birmingham. He’s discussing his most infamous case: successfully defending white cops accused of beatings and murder at the Algiers Motel as Detroit burned in the summer of 1967. The allegations were savage. The case exposed racial wounds that perhaps still haven’t healed.
Lippitt pauses. He puts his feet on his desk to reveal soft leather driving shoes that he wears without socks.
“Let me ask you a question,” he says with a smile. “What do you think of my new shoes?”
Lippitt, once one of Detroit’s best-known and most flamboyant trial attorneys, is ready yet again for his star turn.
Now 81, he’s edgy and annoyed – but loving the attention – in the days leading to the Aug. 4 release of “Detroit,” Academy Award-winning director Kathryn Bigelow’s movie based on the Algiers Motel killings. Lippitt is one of the last surviving principals of the divisive case, and a character based largely on him is played by John Krasinski, of television’s “The Office.”
Lippitt hasn’t seen the movie. And he’s upset. Not that it may depict his clients, the cops, as racists. But that it might suggest it took something less than brilliant advocacy to persuade all-white juries to acquit the officers.
“I’m just pissed off that they’re going to make me look irrelevant. I don’t like being irrelevant,” Lippitt says.
“I’d rather have them tell me that I’m an asshole or a racist than tell me that I’ve irrelevant.
“Maybe I’m a narcissist.”
Lippitt likes to talk. About himself. “I can’t believe all the shit I’ve done in my life,” says Lippitt, who spoke to Bridge Magazine for six hours about a career that’s included a judgeship, celebrity clients and a thriving commercial law firm, Lippitt O’Keefe Gornbein, PLLC.
But it’s the words Lippitt won’t speak that frustrate veterans of Detroit’s civil rights movement.
For 17 years, until 1984, he was lead counsel for the Detroit Police Officers Association, where he defended numerous officers accused of brutality and murder.
That made him the public face – and defender – of the city’s white ruling class, says Heather Ann Thompson, a University of Michigan professor of African-American history who has studied the city’s police force. There’s a “direct line” between Lippitt’s legal victories – and tactics that included eliminating blacks from juries – and outrage over recent police killings of civilians that spawned the Black Lives Matter movement, says Danielle McGuire, a Wayne State University history professor who is writing a new book about the Algiers Motel killings.
Lippitt refuses to give critics the satisfaction of rationalizing his work defending police accused of murder – or even mouthing platitudes about the justice system requiring a vigorous defense for all defendants.
To him, each case was a battle. Win. Move on.
“Norman Lippitt is soulless,” says Sheila Cockrel, a former Detroit city councilwoman whose deceased husband, Ken Cockrel Sr., was an attorney who sued the city over police abuses in the 1970s.
“Norman got extremely wealthy protecting raging police brutality. It’s a form of cynicism that is breathtaking.”
“I don’t necessarily disagree.”
Swashbuckler in Ralph Lauren
Lippitt says people can think what they want of him, as long as no one calls him a bad lawyer. And judges, colleagues, retired newspaper reporters who covered his career and even critics agree he’s a hell of a lawyer.
Lippitt was a “swashbuckler,” a “stick-your-chin-out and take-the-first-swing personality” who worked harder than most and had an easy rapport with jurors, says his former partner, Robert Harrison, a Bloomfield Hills attorney. Back then, Lippitt looked like “Godfather”-era Al Pacino, in his Ralph Lauren suits, perfect hair and sideburns.
“Norman Lippitt hasn’t passed a lot of mirrors without stopping to say hi,” says Al Grant of the Retired Detroit Police Officers Association, who started with the force in 1970.
Boxes of news clips saved by Lippitt’s mother include fashion spreads he posed for in The Detroit News Sunday Magazine. To Lippitt, his suits were the uniform of a “samurai” – a warrior sworn to his patron, right or wrong.
This description comes from his own 2011 memoir, “In the Trenches: Guerilla Warfare and Other Trial Tactics.” It’s on prominent display in his office alongside another favorite: “Warriors’ Words,” whose quotes – particularly those about self-confidence – are highlighted.
Lippitt has always had a chip on his shoulder. The son of a Highland Park jeweler, he says he grew up in a Jewish family of “tough guys” in northwest Detroit. Unlike some peers, Lippitt says he didn’t experience anti-Semitism. Quite the contrary.
“Nobody screwed around with me,” Lippitt says.
Lippitt was a jock who excelled in sports. (“They used to call me the fastest white boy in Detroit.”) Football took him to the University of Detroit. A desire to avoid being a jeweler led him to graduate from Detroit College of Law in 1961.
In those days, many prominent law firms were reluctant to hire Jews. Lippitt says he never dwelled on the slight and quickly joined the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office, where he tried more than 100 felony cases before he turned 30.
“We could smell a tiger the moment Norm took his first case,” an anonymous lawyer is quoted in a 1971 profile in The Detroit News. “He was a winner. You knew it the way he walked into court.”
By the mid-1960s, Lippitt was married and had two children. He says he wasn’t making enough money as an assistant prosecutor. It would become a theme for much of his life.
“It was always more and more money. And more and more fame to get more and more money. It was never enough for Norman,” says Sanford Plotkin, a defense attorney who worked with Lippitt in the 1990s and admires his “brilliant legal mind.”
Lippitt quit the prosecutor job in 1965 because it paid $10,500 per year, about $82,000 in today’s dollars. Two years later, he got the police union contract. By 1969, Lippitt told a newspaper he was earning $75,000 per year, about a half-million in today’s money.
Lippitt did it by defending one cop after another accused of brutality.
There was plenty of work in Detroit.
Three dead at the Algiers
Detroit was becoming a more diverse city in the 1960s, but its police department remained virtually all white.
By the late 1960s, the city was nearly 40 percent African American, with most living south of Grand Boulevard. The police had 4,300 officers – fewer than 250 of them black, says Willie Bell, who joined the force in 1971 and is now chairman of the Board of Police Commissioners.
“There was nothing positive to say about the police department then,” says Bell, who is African American.
Police – and their politically powerful union – did more than fight crime in Detroit. They enforced a social order that separated blacks and whites, says Thompson, the U-M professor.
“Rather than hearing what the community was saying – that the police were operating like a renegade army – they kept doubling down with brutality,” says Thompson, who won a Pulitzer Prize this year for a book she wrote about the 1971 Attica Prison riot.
That was the atmosphere leading to the night of July 23, 1967, when police raided a black-owned, after-hours speakeasy on 12th and Clairmount. A crowd formed. A bottle was thrown. And then a window broke.
Five days later, 43 were dead, hundreds of stores were burned or looted and thousands were injured or arrested.
On the third night of the violence, police reported sniper fire at the Algiers Motel on Woodward, about a mile from the origin of the uprisings. The motel had a bad reputation. Police were on edge because, earlier in the day, a revered fellow officer, Jerome Olshove, had been shot and killed during a scuffle with looters.
City police, state troopers and National Guardsmen arrived at the motel. By morning, three black teens were dead. At least two, according to motel guests, were executed at close range by white Detroit police.
No sniper weapon was ever found. Friends of the murdered teens, who were themselves brutalized, later told investigators the gunshot police heard was a toy starter’s pistol one teen had fired as a prank.
A murderous ‘game’
To this day, there’s much confusion about what happened in those early hours at the Algiers.
According to trial testimony, newspaper accounts and a book, “The Algiers Motel Incident” by John Hersey, the short version goes like this:
Amid the violence, several black teens, includinga music group, the Dramatics, along with two white teenage girls, took refuge in the motel. Upon hearing what they thought was gunfire, law enforcement shot out the lights near the motel and stormed the building.
For about an hour, three young white Detroit cops – Ronald August, Robert Paille and David Senak – along with a black security guard, Melvin Dismuke, allegedly brutalized motel guests in an effort to learn who fired the gun that started the raid.
Eight black men and two white women were lined up against a wall. Some were beaten with the butts of guns while called racial epithets. The women had their clothes torn and were taunted as “n****r lovers.”
Police played a gruesome “game” to find out who fired the gun. They led one black teen into a side room and fired a gun to make their friends in the hallway think the teen was murdered and become so scared they’d confess. Another teen, Aubrey Pollard, 19, was led into a second room, apparently as part of the game. He ended up dead, under circumstances that suggested the second cop didn’t know he was supposed to fake Pollard’s execution.
By sunrise, two other teens were also dead: Carl Cooper, 17, and Fred Temple, 18.
The Detroit cops did not report the shootings to superiors. After witness accounts began to emerge, the cops initially claimed the teens were already dead when they entered the Algiers. When that explanation collapsed, two officers confessed to shooting Pollard and Temple, but asserted self-defense, saying the men tried to grab their guns. To this day, it remains unclear how and when Cooper was shot.
Lippitt entered the case when he was called by the union. August, a former clarinet player for the police band, was at police headquarters, giving his statement about the deaths.
Lippitt stopped the interrogation.
“All I did was my job,” Lippitt says. “Someone has to defend them. Someone has to do the dirty work.”
Playing to prejudice?
Thrust into an incendiary case at age 32, Lippitt says he did what he’s always done: Work hard and win.
His strategy, which he’d employ in other brutality cases over the years, was to remove blacks from juries, poke holes in witness testimony and criticize police administration for failing to better train the officers.
It was an effective formula.
“He only had to do a couple of things: Discredit the witnesses and get the whitest jury you could get,” says McGuire, the Wayne State professor, who has interviewed Lippitt several times.
“Does it take a genius to play on people’s racism? I don’t think so.”
Initially, two officers were charged with murder, but Lippitt persuaded a judge to drop charges against Paille. Lippitt got August’s murder trial delayed several times, citing pretrial publicity and raw feelings about the incident in Detroit. Blacks were so outraged by the killings that prominent leaders, including Ken Cockrel and civil rights icon Rosa Parks, participated in a symbolic citizens tribunal that found the officers guilty.
August’s trial was relocated to tiny Mason, a nearly all-white town near Lansing. The judge in the case, William Beer, approved several motions that ended up favoring Lippitt’s client.
Prosecutors persuaded Beer to allow them to fire a starter pistol in the courtroom. They’d hoped it would show police overreacted. Instead, the noise “sounded like a howitzer” in the cavernous building and scared jurors, Lippitt says.
The judge also allowed jurors to watch 20 minutes of television footage of the violence over objection of prosecutors, who accused Lippitt of playing “on every base emotion” in showing the footage.
“The film is a blatant appeal to bias and bigotry,” argued assistant prosecutor Avery Weiswasser.
Lippitt closed the case by arguing that what happened in Detroit was neither a riot nor an uprising.
“It was a war! A war where every police officer, every Guardsmen and every soldier was working in a battleground,” the attorney told the jury, according to an account in a book, “Unsolved Civil Rights Murder Cases,” that Lippitt confirmed.
“Ronald August is guilty of working under those conditions. Guilty of working days and nights with little or no rest. Guilty of standing idle while looting and firebombing and sniping was going on. Guilty of being shot (at) in the street. Guilty for not being allowed to shoot criminals. This is what happened in those first days of that war in Detroit – while the mayor and the governor and the president were indecisive.”
As the trial closed, another victory for the defense: Beer told jurors they could only convict August of first-degree murder or acquit him, leaving them with no option for a “compromise” verdict of manslaughter.
The all-white jury returned with a not-guilty verdict in less than three hours.
U.S. attorneys also brought charges against all three police officers, and the guard Dismukes, accusing them of conspiring to deny civil rights to Algiers’ motel guests.
Lippitt got the federal conspiracy case moved to Flint, claiming he couldn’t get an impartial jury in Detroit because of the publication of “The Algiers Motel Incident” book.
This time, the not-guilty verdict was delivered in nine hours. Again, the jury was all white, an easier accomplishment at the time, before the U.S. Supreme Court made it harder to strike potential jurors on the basis of race.
“Yeah, it was an all-white jury,” Lippitt says. “I would have had an all-white jury in (the Detroit) Recorder’s Court as well.”
“I don’t apologize for that. As an attorney, you have an obligation to pursue everything on behalf of your client.”
Even with an all-white jury, Lippitt says, he did a “hell of a job,” was better prepared than prosecutors and “cut the witnesses to shreds.”
Lippitt says he never spoke to his clients again. All the officers except Senak, who was represented by a different lawyer, are dead. So is the judge and the assistant prosecutor, Weiswasser.
The Algiers Motel was razed in 1979 and is now a park.
‘I fight for the fuzz’
Lippitt was never shy about discussing money. He told The Detroit News in 1971 he wouldn’t represent poor people because “to win costs money.” By the late 1970s, he says he was billing $250,000 per year, the equivalent of $1 million, representing police.
“I do fight for the cop, the fuzz, the pig … I think he’s trying to do a near impossible job,” Lippitt told the newspaper.
He defended Detroit officers in the infamous STRESS (Stop The Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets) unit, formed to crack down on street violence in 1971. The decoy unit consisted of officers posing as bums or drunks to lure muggers. In less than two years, police killed 22 men, all but one were black.
Among the officers Lippitt successfully defended was Patrolman Raymond “Mad Dog” Peterson. In two years, he shot 10, killing eight, including a black motorist who fell asleep at the wheel and rear-ended Peterson’s car at a highway off-ramp.
Peterson initially claimed the man, Robert Hoyt, 24, pulled a knife. When a hair found on the weapon matched Peterson’s cat, Lippitt opted for a different defense. He argued the Vietnam veteran police officer suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.
In a move Lippitt admits he “would never get away with today,” he picked jurors by presenting them with a scenario during jury selection. A man shoots a burglar in his kitchen. When he turns on the light, he realizes it’s his teenage neighbor and plants a knife. Is he guilty of murder or filing a false police report?
Those who opted for the latter stayed on the jury.
“People don’t remember, these were violent times,” says Grant, the retired police union leader. “Lippitt was a guy who did a good job for us when we needed it.”
Around that time, Lippitt says he was awakened several times a month by union callswhen police shot civilians. A union driver would pick him up and take him to headquarters to help officers involved with the shootings write their reports.
Lippitt was a fast typist, so he typed the reports for the cops. Sometimes, he helped police with phrases, such as “Fearing for my life …,” Lippitt acknowledges.
Then-state Sen. Coleman Young, who was in the courtroom when August was acquitted in the Algiers case, campaigned against police tactics during the 1973 mayoral campaign. In his first order as Detroit’s first black mayor, he disbanded the STRESS unit.
“Norman Lippitt and the police acquittals absolutely had a major impact on race relations both in the 1970s and today,” says McGuire, the Wayne State professor.
“He helped lay a foundation for what is acceptable and what police can get away with, which helped drive the call for black power. … In a way, Norman Lippitt helped get Coleman Young elected.”
It’s an argument that Lippitt’s former partner calls “ridiculous.”
“Norman didn’t cause the ‘67 riots. There was a social movement that was very complicated and far greater than Norman,” Harrison says.
“Our directive as lawyers is to zealously represent clients and to consider nothing other than their defense. Is Norman supposed to take a fall? Would he be considered a nice guy now if he did a shitty job with those cases?”
Wrong side of history?
And then, like so many Detroiters, Lippitt moved on.
From 1970 to 1980, the city’s white population fell by half, to 414,000. By 1980, 63 percent of the city’s 1.2 million residents were black.
Lippitt moved his practice from downtown Detroit to Southfield in the mid ‘70s. A decade later, in 1985, he was appointed to a judgeship in Oakland County Circuit Court, the more affluent county north of Detroit, where he lasted 3½ years before transitioning to commercial law.
Over the years, he represented Ambassador Bridge mogul Matty Moroun in a suit with his sisters over the family business (Lippitt loosened up one of the sisters in a deposition by asking if she thought he was handsome); prominent trial attorneyGeoffrey Fieger over a breach of contract case (the two had a falling out when Fieger criticized Lippitt’s opening statement); former Detroit Red Wings hockey great Sergei Fedorov (it didn’t end well), and the wife of Oakland Mall owner Jay Kagan in their divorce (which included a brawl in his office and $5.6 million alimony judgment).
“Ask any lawyer 50 years of age or younger: Everyone knows me, everyone. But not one out of 10 will remember my criminal days anymore,” Lippitt says.
As the 50th anniversary of the Algiers shootings nears, though, his criminal defense work is again in focus. Last year, he met for three hours with Bigelow, the director of the “Detroit” movie, which will have its premiere in Detroit on July 25.
Now, media from as far away as Japan are calling. Cockrel, the former city councilwoman, says Lippitt’s legacy is sorrowful.
“He got off people who assassinated young men,” says Cockrel. “And he did it with no ideology behind it other than ‘winning.’ To me, this is behavior of someone who stands for nothing other than self-aggrandizement.”
Was he on the wrong side of history? Perhaps, Lippitt says.
Were some of his clients racist? Probably.
“I don’t know why everybody wants to make me a do-gooder. I’m not a do-gooder. I’m not a do-badder, either,” Lippitt says.
“I’m a trial lawyer. I pay my taxes. I give to charity. I love animals.
“I’m very good to women…. When I was a judge, they used to say about me: I was a woman’s judge. You give me a fat, ugly woman and a guy who’s got a lot of money, who’s got a girlfriend, a blonde 20 years younger than his wife. His wife’s gonna get a lot of alimony because she’s not marketable.”
Friends have heard that sort of talk before. They sigh. “That’s our Normy,” one says.
Longtime friend Oliver Mitchell, a former federal prosecutor and one-time general counsel of Ford Motor Co., says Lippitt has “become a caricature of himself” over the years. Even if Lippitt is reluctant to say so, he helped defend the Constitution by providing vigorous defenses to unpopular defendants, Mitchell says.
“Norman had no reservations about representing police officers in matters that weren’t always popular. That’s what (defense attorneys) do,” Mitchell says. “What bothers him is that so many people are reacting negatively.”
If he is bothered, Lippitt isn’t tipping his hand. After several hours of talking to Bridge (“I love this”), Lippitt has one more revelation about the Algiers.
“Are you ready for this? You’re going to fall off that chair,” he says.
“If I was the prosecutor, they would have been convicted.
“I was that good.”