A Pugilist in Pinstripes

The 4th District Court of Appeals says Broward County prosecutor Alberto Milian is a menace in the courtroom. But he's just doing his job.

The objects that adorn Alberto Milian's office in the Broward County courthouse in Fort Lauderdale tell more about the Cuban-born prosecutor than the words that pour forth from his mouth ever could. Behind Milian's desk is a red, white, and blue United States Army banner. Taped to the door is a front page from the New York Daily News featuring President Clinton. The headline: "Liar, Liar." Sitting on his desk is a coffee mug that reads, "Bald Men Don't Waste Their Hormones Growing Hair." A poster from a Rodin exhibition hangs across from his desk.

More telling than any of these mementos of machismo and patriotism, however, are the framed portraits of boxers that grace the walls: Rocky Marciano after felling Jersey Joe Walcott, Jack Dempsey in a George Bellows print. "I've always admired the courage of the individual in boxing," says Milian, his intense eyes so dark it's almost impossible to distinguish the pupils. "In the end, whether he wins or loses, he is always by himself."

In his 11-year career as a Broward County prosecutor, Al Milian, as many people know him, has often applied the manners of the boxing ring to the courtroom. He is a pugilist in pinstripes.

The son of a renowned Miami radio host, Milian, age 38, once referred to jurors who returned an unfavorable verdict as "lobotomized zombies." In another case the prosecutor characterized defense attorneys as "maggots" and "poor excuses for human beings." Milian has physically threatened some of his courtroom adversaries. "I never have a nice relationship with the defense attorney," he admits.

In February he took a nasty jab himself from the 4th District Court of Appeals. "Apparently this prosecutor has not learned from our previous comments that his improprieties have brought repeated discredit to the office of the State Attorney in the Seventeenth Judicial Circuit by his failure to comply with the canons of advocacy," the opinion stated. The appeals court then called on the Florida Bar to take disciplinary action against Milian, an almost unheard-of step. It was the fourth time in the last six years that the appeals court had rebuked him by name for prosecutorial misconduct -- a record that few attorneys, in South Florida or anywhere, approach.

"I've tried cases in that courthouse for 25 years, and I can't name another prosecutor that comes close to him," says Patrick Rastatter, a Fort Lauderdale defense attorney who has successfully argued appeals in two of Milian's cases. "The guy's a psycho. He really is."

But as it turns out, both the 4th District Court of Appeals and Rastatter are guilty of the equivalent of delivering low blows. In writing its opinion, the court attributed to Milian one case he never prosecuted. In another trial cited by the court, Milian's histrionics, while outrageous, took place after the verdict had been delivered. While Milian may be guilty of bad manners and an insatiable ego, he's a successful prosecutor who has the full backing of the state attorney's office.

It's mid-April, and Alberto Milian does not look like a psycho. Dressed in a dark, conservative suit, he is in Judge James Cohn's courtroom, getting ready to present his closing argument for what has turned out to be a three-day trial. Although his hairline is receding and his meticulously maintained mustache is flecked with gray, Milian's face is baby smooth. He has the build of an aging welterweight -- robust but a few beers past his prime.

Milian deals with the dregs of the criminal-justice system, the habitual offenders. Most of the men he prosecutes (almost none are women) have committed at least two previous felonies. They are facing long stretches in the slammer.

The black man in the defendant's chair is accused of armed robbery. Brandon Hall and a friend allegedly shoved a short-barreled shotgun in the faces of two men in the Carver Ranches section of Hollywood and made off with their money. "They ran the risk of committing a murder, killing another person, for $55," Milian will say later.

For good measure Hall is also charged with resisting arrest (for giving a false name to the police) and possession of an illegal short-barreled shotgun. Although he is not considered a "habitual felony offender," as defined by the State of Florida, he is well on his way: He has been convicted of two previous felonies as an adult, for grand theft and possession of cocaine. Hall will turn 19 years old this week, and he could be reunited with his father in jail: Donald Hall is serving a life term for second-degree murder.

This case hinges on the credibility of Brandon Hall's alibi witness, who claimed in testimony that Hall was with him at the time of the robbery. Hall was picked up by the other suspect immediately after the robbery was committed, the witness told the court.

Just before closing arguments get under way, another prosecutor stops by the courtroom. "I came by to give Mr. Milian some moral support, since he's such a shrinking violet," he says, garnering a laugh from the amiable Judge Cohn.

Closing statements sometimes get Milian into trouble. But as he prepares to appeal to the jury for a conviction, he shows no evidence of being burdened by the appeals court's recent opinion. "If you let that bother you too much, that there's some judge gunning for you up there in the appellate court; that can only detract from you as a prosecutor," he explains later.

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