MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now for another reflection on the 50th anniversary of the Detroit riots. Yesterday, we spoke with Kathryn Bigelow, the Oscar-winning director whose latest film "Detroit" examines one of the most notorious incidents from the '67 uprising. Police, wrongly believing they'd been fired on by a sniper, terrorized and ultimately killed three young black men and then tried to cover it up. The officers involved - Ronald August, Robert Paille and David Senak - were variously charged with murder, conspiracy and federal civil rights violations. Eventually, they were all found not guilty.
Norman Lippitt was their attorney. At the time, he had an agreement to represent members of the Detroit Police Officers Association. We wanted to ask him about his role in the Algiers Motel case, so we went to visit him in his sprawling suburban home to talk about his memories of the trial and how he's reflected on it since.
So how did you get involved with the Algiers Motel case?
NORMAN LIPPITT: Well, it was a natural evolution. I mean, here - August, Paille and Senak, three police officers, were being interrogated. I don't remember specifically which one I was called downtown to represent. It might have been August who had changed his story from not knowing how these young people were killed to the fact that he had killed one of them in self-defense. And I believe I stopped the interrogation.
MARTIN: How did you determine what your defense was going to be or how you were going to proceed with your defense? Do you remember?
LIPPITT: Well, you have to understand there were three cases, not just one case. August and Paille were charged with murder. August, Paille and Senak were charged on a state level with conspiracy to do a lawful act in an unlawful fashion. Subsequently, the United States government, the Justice Department, charged them with violation of civil rights, Title 18, 1983, Mississippi Burning - same charge.
MARTIN: So fast forward to eventually you did go to trial. You were able to get the trial moved out of Detroit. How would you describe your strategy here?
LIPPITT: My strategy was the same strategy any defense lawyer would use. You look at the evidence. You look at the witnesses. You determine whether or not you can create a reasonable doubt based on their testimony. And you proceed on the basis, in this case, Ronald August's defense was self-defense. He claimed that Auburey Pollard grabbed the shotgun while they were in one of the rooms at the Algiers Motel and the gun went off. That was his defense. However, the other witnesses were not very - I wouldn't say they weren't credible. They had a difficult time making out a cohesive story. I did a very good job of destroying the credibility of the witnesses. I had a couple breaks in the case, and I can see that, if you'd like to know what they were.
MARTIN: Yeah. What were they?
LIPPITT: Well, Avery Weisswasser was the prosecutor. The police and the National Guard claimed they heard a gun go off at the Algiers. That's why they converged on the motel. They found a starter pistol. Avery Weisswasser wanted to prove that nobody would have hearing that was good enough to hear a starter pistol from inside a building while they were out on the street. And so he persuaded the judge to allow him to fire the gun in the court room in the presence of the jury. Well, the courtroom in Mason, Mich., Michigan was a palatial courtroom. Acoustics were wonderful. It was like an opera house. He fired the gun, and it sounded like a howitzer. So that was a blunder.
MARTIN: So the argument that these people were in fear of their life was persuasive. Hearing that starter gun go off in the courtroom was so loud that people - you think the jury would be persuaded that, yeah...
LIPPITT: They could hear it from the street.
MARTIN: ...They could hear it from the street. And then what was the second lucky break?
LIPPITT: The second lucky break was - And I think the most significant break was this. I mean, everybody says it was an all-white jury so, you know.
MARTIN: It was an all-white jury.
LIPPITT: Yeah, no question about it.
MARTIN: Do you think race played a role in a - that this white jury in a white town with a white judge predisposed to believe that whatever these guys did was right no matter what?
LIPPITT: Well, let's put it the other - let me turn it around for you, OK? What would an all-black jury do in Detroit? I think the likelihood of a conviction with an all-black jury would be greater than it was with a white jury, no question about it. However, the interesting thing that you need to understand is this - in those days in Detroit, they select a jury by voter registration. The likelihood of an all-black jury in Detroit in those days was zero. It would have still been a majority white jury.
MARTIN: Going back now, you know, 50 years later, do you have any feelings about that trial?
LIPPITT: Well, Sheila Cockrel, who is a...
MARTIN: Former city councilwoman in Detroit.
LIPPITT: ...Says I'm a soulless person. I read that in a magazine, I'm soulless. I - you know, see, I - I guess what really upsets me, do you know how many black officers I represented? For - the most infamous case was the Rochester Street incident, where I represented three black officers with a white jury who acquitted. I represented many, many black officers over the years. I was a hero to the black officers as much as I was the white officers. I couldn't get a ticket in the city of Detroit from a black officer or a white officer.
MARTIN: As a citizen. Now, 50 years later, you don't do criminal defense work anymore. You don't represent the police department or officers anymore. A lot of people are taking a look back on these events and they're asking, you know, why it happened. And could this happen again? What do you think?
LIPPITT: Could it happen again? I don't know. I am not a part of it anymore. And I kind of feel bad that that people believe that I was part of a movement to suppress people. It wasn't - I was a criminal defense attorney. I was doing my job, and I really didn't think anything about it. And, you know, you need to understand this as well.
And I'm not I'm not trying to be defensive. I grew up in the '50s, the Eisenhower administration. I wasn't a part of the civil rights movement, the college protests in Vietnam. It was all after my time. I was 31 years old practicing law, raising a family. And I'm not making excuses. It just wasn't within the scope of my thinking - period. We never talked about race relations.
MARTIN: Did you ever talk to those officers again after the trial was over?
LIPPITT: It's very interesting you ask that question. Guess who called me yesterday? David Senak. And...
LIPPITT: He's the only one still alive, right?
LIPPITT: Yeah. And he...
MARTIN: Oh, he's the only one of the three officers still alive.
LIPPITT: He was considered - I think the media characterized him as the worst of the three. Guess what? David Senak's son-in-law or daughter-in-law is African-American.
MARTIN: Norman Lippitt. He was the defense attorney for the police officers charged in the Algiers Motel murder case.
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