Feud for Thought

Mike is a DUI attorney with a nose for legal loopholes. Alan is a crusading cop with a jones for drunk drivers. Vendetta, anyone?

Catalano doesn't bother with niceties when defending clients, according to several prosecuting attorneys, and he couples that fervor with a willingness to file complaints against cops and prosecutors. His face, with its thin lips, small nose, and freckled complexion, is as sharp as his personality, a piece of flint ready to ignite sparks. "Hey, I'm not saying everybody likes me," Catalano remarks. "But I am saying that I put my clients first, always."

Given their strong personalities, it's not surprising that the two foes have disagreed over practically everything -- including what actually happened during their confrontations. Listening to them is like viewing the documentary The Thin Blue Line: Everyone has a different version of the same incidents.

And those who know both Davis and Catalano say they were destined to clash. "Most criminal defense lawyers are bound to have a bad relationship with a cop at one time or another, but the length and breadth of this conflict makes it unusual," says Robert Reiff, the one DUI attorney ranked above Catalano in the Herald survey. "There is something about the two personalities involved that would just not let their dislike of one another go."

The roots of that hostility lie in depositions given by Davis in July 1989 in the cases of two DUI suspects, William Vernon and Catherine Smith. They were represented by Catalano after being pulled over for drunk driving on different nights in May 1989. The attorney says that as soon as he began the questioning of Davis, who participated in the arrests of both suspects, he knew he had a problem. "He gave me so much attitude that I couldn't believe it," Catalano remembers. "It wasn't so much what he said as how he said it. I've never met a cop so defensive and rude."

Catalano in turn is known less for his legal etiquette than for his ability to get under the skin of a hostile witness. He was determined to reveal Davis's personal animus toward all DUI suspects by quizzing Davis about his behavior during the case of Robert Smith, the drunk driver who fatally wounded Davis's friend Atienza. Davis did not attend Smith's sentencing hearing on June 20, 1989, but the police officer's wife read a statement he had prepared to the presiding judge asking for the maximum sentence. However, just one month later, during the Vernon deposition, Catalano could not get the police officer to admit having written the letter. Later when Catalano submitted a formal complaint to the police department accusing the officer of perjury, Davis explained the contradiction to police investigators by saying that Catalano should have asked him about his "statement" rather than any "letter" to the judge.

According to Mark Vargo, a former Dade DUI prosecutor who is now a county prosecutor in South Dakota, Davis may not have committed perjury during that deposition, but on the stand in other cases he was prone to such hairsplitting, especially when questioned harshly by Michael Catalano. "I never had a problem with Davis in a trial except when Mike Catalano was on the other side," Vargo remembers. "There was clearly a lot of antagonism there, and Michael knew how to egg him on. Catalano has this inimitable smirk when he knows he's winning. Davis would lose sight of the judge and jury and just focus on Michael."

Catalano, for his part, seized every opportunity to discredit Davis. Another conflict arose when Davis, while being deposed in the Catherine Smith case, acknowledged that he'd sought to illustrate the consequences of drunk driving by showing that DUI suspect the picture of Atienza on the testing center wall. Yet six weeks later, in testimony during the Vernon trial, Davis answered "No" when Catalano asked whether he was accustomed to showing the picture to every intoxicated suspect. "You do it with many?" Catalano persisted. "I don't recall doing it with anybody," Davis replied.

It wasn't only the contradictions that infuriated Catalano. In September 1989, in the hallway outside of a courtroom in which Catalano had just appealed Vernon's conviction, Catalano heard Davis use the word "slimeball" while the officer was speaking to Dade County Court Judge Catherine Pooler and two assistant state attorneys. Catalano knew that Davis was referring to him -- and he was right. The following week the enraged DUI attorney filed the first of several internal affairs complaints he would lodge against Davis over the next four years. This first set of charges accused the officer of perjury, allegedly committed during the July depositions and subsequent trials, and slander, stemming from the "slimeball" comment.

Davis began what would become an ongoing project; namely, convincing investigators that he was not carrying out a vendetta against Catalano and had done nothing improper. Both the internal affairs unit and the State Attorney's Office accepted Davis's explanation that the incidents of alleged perjury were nothing more than semantic misunderstandings between himself and the lawyer during questioning. But, in the opinion of the internal affairs unit, Davis's use of the word "slimeball" was clearly wrong A and (mildly) punishable. The epithet earned him a verbal reprimand on June 13, 1990, for conduct unbecoming to a police officer. Davis admits that he used the word to describe Michael Catalano, but refuses to discuss the incident. "The record speaks for itself," he explains.

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