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Redemption Plea

On May 17, John P. Contini leaned across a table in Broward County Courtroom 343 and whispered in his client's ear. Martin Diez, a 34-year-old Pembroke Pines man with brown eyes, brown hair, and a chubby face, looked up and smiled.

He didn't have much to smile about at the moment. Diez was in the middle of a highly publicized trial in which he was accused of impersonating a police officer and kidnapping a 4-year-old Hollywood girl at gunpoint in June 2004. The best deal prosecutors could offer: 20 years.

Contini, a tall, slender man with a white beard and gray suit, was trying to convince six jurors that Diez believed the child was being abused. He was coming to her rescue, not her terror, Contini said.

"If Martin is guilty of anything, it's having a messianic complex," Contini said outside the courtroom.

It was familiar territory for Contini, an affable, gentle-voiced defense attorney who served two stints in Broward State Attorney Michael Satz's office. In fact, the slow pace of the Diez trial had forced Contini to alter his travel plans. He was expected at Book Expo America in Washington, D.C., to promote his first book, Danger Road: A True Crime Story of Murder and Redemption. The book details Contini's unique if strange relationship with Gil Fernandez Jr., his first client with an unabashed messianic complex.

In 1992, Contini represented Fernandez, a former Miami-Dade cop and champion bodybuilder, in a media circus of a trial in which Fernandez and his Mob boss, Bert Christie, were convicted of the 1983 execution-style murders of three men — Richard Robertson, 26, Walter Leahy Jr., 25, and Alfred Tringali, 31 — in a remote area near Jones Fish Camp, in northwest Miami-Dade County.

It was a defining case for Contini. Before the trial, he had bragged to reporters: "My guy is going to walk." Fernandez didn't, of course, and though he was spared the death penalty, he will likely spend the rest of his life in prison.

Today, Contini still lives with the demons of that case. About a year before his 1992 trial, Fernandez claimed to have experienced a religious transformation. He wanted a Christian attorney. Contini wanted a high-profile case with a six-figure payday.

"So I lied," Contini says. "I told him I was [a believer in] the faith. And I wasn't."

But in the years after the trial, Contini maintained a relationship with Fernandez. It was during frequent visits to see Fernandez in Union Correctional Institute in Raiford, in North Florida, that, Contini claims, Fernandez saved him and helped him become "born again" — a Christian. According to prison chaplains, Contini is one of dozens of people Fernandez has counseled in and out of prison as part of his jailhouse work, which he calls Armed and Dangerous Ministries (see "Muscles, Murder, and a Messiah," January 5 and January 12).

Contini can't point to an exact moment that Fernandez's proselytizing won him over. But during a talk two years ago, Contini realized he was convinced that Fernandez was the "real deal." He'd driven to Raiford to confess that he'd lied: He wasn't a Christian man when he accepted the case. He just wanted the money and publicity. He expected his former client to scream in anger. But he didn't.

"John, don't you see? It's Jesus," Fernandez told him. "Only Jesus could do this."

In subsequent visits, Contini watched as Fernandez counseled fellow prisoners and even the troubled son of an inmate. "It was like Gil was on a mission," Contini says. "He'd preach in this rapid-fire way, quoting Scripture, as if he were possessed, literally possessed by God."

Although Fernandez was convicted of three brutal killings and is suspected of murdering at least six others, Contini believes Fernandez can serve as a role model for Christians and others drawn to the religion.

Contini has hired a Christian-focused public relations firm to promote his book, published by small New York-based Liberty Press, and for the past month has been making the rounds on religious radio, the Trinity Broadcasting Network, and the Christian Television Network.

"The key [to this book] is that he's a God of second chances, because I got a second chance," Contini explained during a recent appearance on TBN. "And he gives us all second chances, regardless of whether it's murder or whatever you've done in your life or whatever the viewers have done, whatever Gil did, whatever I've done."

The book, which contains verbatim transcripts of the Fernandez trial and religiously charged letters from Fernandez in prison, is as much a friend's examination of Fernandez's purported religious redemption as it is a lawyer's memoir of a dramatic criminal trial.

Contini's incentive for writing and promoting the book is perhaps the hardest for skeptics to swallow. "This is not about money or publicity," he says. "I don't need that. Gil doesn't need that. This is about inspiring others through Gil's story."

Nothing but fairy dust, Fernandez's critics say.

"Fernandez will meet his maker, and I assure you it won't be God," says a childhood friend of murder victim Robertson. "This guy is going straight to hell."

Doug Molloy, a federal prosecutor in Fort Myers, is also skeptical. Described in Contini's book as a worthy adversary who "was too damn smart to spar with very long," Molloy was one of three prosecutors assigned to the Fernandez case. He has difficulty believing Fernandez's story of redemption, since the convicted killer has been unable or unwilling to confess to the other murders police and prosecutors believe he committed.

"When I think of the case, I don't think about the defendant," Molloy says. "I remember the family members of the people he killed who came every day to the trial. They loved the victims intensely. There are other family members that the defendant can provide closure for, and he chooses not to do so. I believe in the possibility of rebirth and renewal. I don't think you can be free, be renewed, have redemption, unless you provide the important comfort that is within your power to give to the people whose lives you have damaged so badly. But those are just my thoughts; the real answer is between God and Mr. Fernandez."

Contini ducks the criticism. In the book, he writes: "In retrospect, just about everyone connected to the State of Florida v. Gilbert Fernandez Jr. case was robbed." Including, Contini says, Gil Fernandez, who shot three men in the back of the head and left their bodies in the Miami-Dade swamp.

So far, Danger Road — which takes its name from the dirt road in the Everglades where the 1983 murders occurred — has been a success in the religious market. Contini's appearances on Christian television have been met with standing ovations from studio audiences. Early book sales have been brisk. He's received letters from readers throughout the country, including some written from behind bars.

Two days after Book Expo America in Washington, where Contini says Danger Road was a hit among readers and book distributors, he's back in Courtroom 343, sitting next to Martin Diez. Judge Stanton Kaplan is instructing the jury.

Dressed in a pressed black suit, Diez looks toward the ground, unnerved. Contini stretches out his long arm and places his hand softly on Diez's shoulder. The defendant looks up and smiles yet again, this time only briefly.

A few hours later, six jurors return. Diez is found guilty of armed kidnapping and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

That isn't the verdict Contini wants. And he'll appeal. His religion and the law, he insists, tell him that Diez deserves a second chance.

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Trevor Aaronson
Contact: Trevor Aaronson