Robin Lord is a criminal defense attorney who craves the tough cases. No matter how heinous the crime, Lord will plow full speed into setting her client free, and at the end of the trial, you can bet that she will be hell on wheels for the summation. She closed her defense of Jonathan Nyce with a three-hour monologue, addressing the jury in tones that ranged from shrill sarcasm to belligerent anger to intimate disclosures. "That’s my thing, the summation," says Lord.
Nyce’s case was a tough one. The 55-year-old former CEO of EpiGenesis Pharmaceuticals was present when his 34-year-old wife, Michelle, died at their Hopewell home on January 16, 2004, after she returned from a tryst with the family gardener. Clumsily, Nyce cleaned up the blood and staged a cover-up car crash, propping up the body in a Toyota Land Cruiser, and driving it into Jacobs Creek. In his confession he claimed it was an accident, that, from the car, Michelle lunged at him with a sharp object and fell to the garage floor. Prosecutors countered that Jonathan Nyce beat his wife to death.
The jury had to consider four charges related to the death and one charge related to the cover-up. The choices included murder (which would have meant 30 years to life in prison), aggravated manslaughter (a jail term of 10 to 30 years), reckless manslaughter, passion/provocation manslaughter (5 to 10 years), and tampering with evidence. On July 14, after 13 hours of deliberation, the jury declared Nyce to be guilty of the two least serious charges – passion/provocation manslaughter and tampering with evidence – and Lord and her staff broke out champagne and pizza.
Lord ranks the Nyce trial as "certainly up there in the top 10" of her difficult cases. But not as difficult as the one in 2001 when she defended Russell LaGond against a charge of murder in Middlesex County where the prosecutor was famous for never having lost a murder trial, says Lord. "Except," she says with satisfaction, "for my case."
And she says it was not as tough as the one in 1995 when, as an assistant public defender, she won what the county prosecutor’s office thought was an open-and-shut case against Kai Johnson, charged with firing the fatal shot that killed Kenneth McBride after a dance at Rider University. "He was alleged to have confessed twice, and there were seven eye witnesses," says Lord, "but I was able to identify for the jury that he was misidentified from the beginning by the ineptitude of the police."
"I rarely turn down a case," says Lord, in a post-trial telephone conversation. "I like the challenge."
Defense attorneys take heat from outsiders to the legal system who wonder how they can justify defending career criminals who commit heinous crimes.
"As a defense attorney," explains Lord, "it is not your job to figure out whether your clients are innocent or guilty. It is your job to defend them."
Lord’s mentor, the late Barbara Lependorf, for example, was the public defender in the nationally notorious trial that resulted in Megan’s Law. Lependorf’s client was Jesse Timmendequas, who is now on death row for the murder and rape of six-year-old Megan Kanka, and it would be difficult to locate anyone who sympathized with him.
In the Nyce trial Lord had to earn the respect of a diverse jury of eight men, including one African American, and four women. Their occupations included a pharmacologist, an HR executive, a marketing specialist, a research assistant, a physicist, and several retirees. Says one juror, Harlan Robins: "She clearly cared for her client and was doing the best that she could for him."
If Robin Lord is a gift to the families of those she defends, she is a scourge to her adversaries. When Lord takes a case, the law enforcement officers from that municipality can look forward to uncomfortable moments on the witness stand. At the Nyce trial she excoriated the state and township police for what she said were failures, such as not searching for the sharp object Nyce’s wife supposedly held.
Lord had effectively attacked Trenton police in 2001 in the case of Hubert Moore, a juvenile being tried as an adult. Moore was accused of attempted murder and aggravated assault (because he aimed a stolen car at police officers) and of manslaughter (because his companion on the joyride, Jenny Hightower, was fatally shot by the police).
Lord castigated the police for what she termed "the Blue Code of Silence" and implied that they had collaborated on their stories. "Hubert Moore is here today because the police intend to make him take the fall for their lies and mistakes," she said, according to the Times of Trenton.
Lord contrasted the Hightower case with the investigation that ensued after police fired on a van of unarmed blacks on the New Jersey Turnpike. For that case, the detectives went to a great deal of trouble to reenact the shooting. Lord noted, in outrage, "They closed the Turnpike down!"
The jury acquitted Moore of the most serious charges, and Lord pronounced it "a significant victory for the defense."
In 1998 she freed Preston Briggs, accused of homicide for a botched sex-for-drugs deal, after she proved that the developmentally disabled man could not have understood his Miranda warning.
"I have the ability to identify the mistakes of my adversaries – and to capitalize on them," says Lord, when asked her secret of success.
A spokesman from the state police, Stephen Jones, says he is not surprised by Lord’s attacks. "She’s just doing her job, trying to make her side look good and the other side look bad," says Jones.
"It is good for the police to know that, if they make a mistake, she will jump on them," says Harry Luna, a Trenton retailer and community activist. "The guys on the street may be tough, but they know she will fight for them."
"She came across as a bit of a shark," says juror Robins. "As the trial proceeded, she continued to try and stick it to the police. I thought, and most of the jury agreed, that the police were quite thorough and professional."
"But when the state medical examiner got on the stand," says Robins,"it was fully appropriate to get nasty. The medical examiner had an agenda to crucify Lord’s client and did not have the expertise to be believable."
Indeed, Lord had saved her sharpest barbs for the conclusions of the county medical examiner, Raafat Ahmad, who said that Nyce had battered his wife’s head more than once against the cement floor. Lord turned to the testimony of her forensic pathology expert, Maryland-based John Adams, who testified that two of the victim’s skull injuries could have been caused by a single violent fall to the concrete floor, and he based this conclusion on a discussion of "coup" and "contre-coup" contusions.
The "coup" contusions on the front of Michelle Nyce’s forehead, Adams said, were associated with "contre-coup" contusions at the back of the skull that resulted from the head moving rapidly through space. When the head suddenly stopped moving, that would produce a massive G-force, and the brain would rattle inside the skull, producing the "contre-coup" contusions.
Lord scornfully pointed out that, before the trial, Ahmad denied that there were contre-coup contusions but, during the trial, she changed her opinion. "She’s making this up as she goes along!" cried Lord in her summation.
In court and out, Lord readily displays her emotions. In the Kai Johnson/Rider murder trial, when she was still a public defender, she got so aggravated that she made an obscene gesture to the judge. "I was intensely involved in defending my client against a murder charge," wrote Lord in her formal apology. "It was a very serious and difficult case as you know. Nonetheless, my conduct was inappropriate regardless of the circumstances."
In the Nyce case she lost her temper when she presented her chief witness, forensic pathologist Adams, and Judge Bill Mathesius cut short her "re-direct" questioning of Adams. Lord scooped up her notes and books, strode back to her table, and slammed them down, triggering a stern lecture from the judge.
Lord has often tangled with Mathesius. "I had extreme difficulty with the judge," she says. Asked for details, she says, "He likes to be a participant when he should just sit back and be a referee."
Another example of Lord’s emotional involvement is her passionate loyalty to mentors and clients. Lord speaks of how her Nyce summation was scheduled on the same day as the birthday of her Lependorf, who died of melanoma in 2003. "She was just wonderful," Lord says.
Lependorf’s husband, Stanley, a psychoanalyst in Princeton, tells how, in the public defender’s office, his wife had helped to smooth the rough edges of the young attorney. Lord could be abrasive and truculent in her opposition to authority, he says, though he notes those are the very qualities that help Lord do well in court. "My wife loved her very much and thought she had a great deal of talent, and she encouraged Lord to open her own practice."
"Monday was Barbara’s birthday," says Lord, "and – now I am getting teary eyed. And when we opened the trial, it was my grandmother’s birthday, and she died earlier in the year . . . I just believe everything has a meaning."
Admitting to being superstitious, and saying she is one of those who rely on good luck charms, she tells the story of a law school friend with whom she worked at Brooklyn Legal Aid. This friend was convinced she needed to wear her purple underwear for good luck but was called unexpectedly into court. "’Judge, she said, I need 20 minutes.’ She grabbed me and we had to go to her home and find her purple underwear so she could try the case."
Lord has her own totem, a small ceramic cat figurine that she and her son bought at Disney World, and a lucky coincidence involving this figurine helped bolster her morale for the Nyce case. "On the day of the opening statements, I didn’t have pockets, so I put it in my bra. That night, it was gone. The next day, I go to court," and here she stops to describe the ceremonial courtroom in the old courthouse, which has several big long tables, "and there, seated on my table, at my place, was this good luck kitty. It was the weirdest thing. It must have fallen out. Nobody knew I had it, but somebody put it right there on my desk."
Robin Kay Lord was born in New York and grew up in Hazlet in Monmouth County. Her parents had a contracting business, as did her brother, whom she says retired young as a millionaire. She says she had wanted to be a lawyer since the age of 12. "First I wanted to be a detective – I just loved Colombo and Get Smart – but since I was afraid of guns, I decided to be Perry Mason instead."
Lord’s mother, Janet Kay, described her daughter as "mouthy" in a 1992 article in the Times of Trenton. Robin’s nickname was Sarah Bernhardt, because of her histrionics, and she would argue with her teachers about her grades – and win. Even at that age she defied the police when they harassed her friends who liked to hang out at the neighborhood park.
Lord went to Raritan High School and Syracuse University, Class of 1983. After spending the first year of law school in Oklahoma, she had a summer job at Brooklyn Legal Aid, and she liked it so much that she transferred to Hofstra, so she could keep working there.
In 1993 she married her husband, Steve, whom she describes as "tall dark and handsome." His day job is as a sheriff in Monmouth County, but he aspires to be an actor, is taking acting lessons, and has been in a couple of movies, one with Spike Lee and another with Denzel Washington. They have a daughter, 2, and a son, 10, who are cared for by her mother and a live-out nanny.
Straight out of law school, Robin Kay worked as a law clerk in Monmouth County, and subsequently as a public defender in Mercer County. She was representing a "peeping Tom" in Princeton when Emily Stuart was murdered in the Stuart home on Mercer Street. In the initial stages of their investigation, the police thought her client was the murderer. She proved otherwise, and the murderer has never been identified.
Lord remembers those years as difficult. "As a public defender, I don’t think you come up for air for about five years," says Lord. "You are just trying to do the best you can for your clients so that they are not suffering from your inexperience."
In 1998 Lord claimed mistaken identity to get an acquittal for Donald Alonzo Henley, a 44-year-old Ewing resident and former star athlete, who had been charged with bank robbery. That was the year she successfully defended Briggs, the developmentally disabled homeless man, and filed a civil rights lawsuit to seek damages and to compel the City of Trenton to videotape future interrogations of suspects.
In 1999 Lord defended Sandres "Sandy" Casiano, who tried to rob Sovereign Bank on Nassau Street and made a clumsy escape by hijacking the car of the late Lucien Wilmerding, then 91 years old. Casiano pleaded guilty to armed bank robbery, use of a firearm during a violent crime, and taking a hostage in committing bank robbery, and he received a 15-year jail term. "I was hoping for a little less time, but the prosecutor wanted a lot, so I won, I guess," said Lord then.
Also that year Lord represented the man known as the "pipe bomb bank robber," a former corrections officer named Freddie Feliciano, accused of robbing 16 banks in five states in less than two months. While he could have faced 20 years on each charge. Lord arranged for a plea bargain, saying he was "courageous" and that he was "taking responsibility for his actions," and he was given a 10-year sentence.
In May of this year Lord represented Joseph J. Kovacs, a repetitive and compulsive sex offender; Luis Torres, accused of robbing a vendor in Camden; and Bernard Green (reportedly a leader of the Gangster Killer Bloods), accused of participating in a shooting.
Last month, according to a Philadelphia newspaper, she accused the Burlington County prosecutor’s office of paying off a witness in order to frame Philip Castagna, a Plainsboro resident who was formerly the police chief for Bordentown. Castagna is charged with conspiring to kill his estranged wife by trying to burn down her house. "If a defense attorney paid a witness $40,000 to testify for a defendant," Lord is reported as saying, "she and the defendant would both be charged and indicted for witness tampering. So why should the prosecution be able to get away with it?"
Lord’s practice, Lord & Whalen, is crammed into the first floor of an ancient townhouse on South Broad Street, next to a bail bonds office, across the street from both the old and new courthouses. Patrick Whelan, who came on as a partner several years ago, handles the civil matters. Her staff includes paralegal Tamara Melendez (formerly with Pelletierri Rabstein), investigator John Coy (who had 29 years experience with the Trenton police department), and attorney Cliff Bidlingmaier.
Just as Lord is driven to succeed, so do her staff members drive themselves right along with her. They work long hours, just as she does. "She called me last week to ask me a question at 11 p.m.," says Coy, "and she asked me, ‘does your wife hate me?’ and I said, ‘No, my wife hates ME.’"
"I could leave," says Coy, "and retire, and just spend the time enjoying my grandchildren. But she makes you want to stay."
A typical day, when she is prepping for a trial, finds her getting up at 5 or 6 a.m. to make the one-hour commute to Trenton. She leaves the office at 6 p.m., drives home to put the children to bed, and turns on the computer to work until 1 or 2 a.m. On some weekends she takes the children to her mother’s house.
Sometimes, she says, she worries about what has happened to her family life. "This case started when my son was still in school," she confides. "I was supposed to sign him up for camp and forgot, so he’s spending the summer playing in the neighborhood. And I look at my neighbors, who are stay-at-home moms, and am extremely envious – and grateful, because they watch out for the nanny and the kids, and they take wonderful care of my older son."
Yet her children are a help, not a hindrance to her career, she claims. "My children know my clients are innocent," she says, "and they help me win." By being encouraging? Yes, and more. "I ask my 10-year-old boy’s opinion on things, such as what I could possibly say to a jury to help convince them of a certain thing. And sometimes he has the darndest things to say that sometimes I use. For this case I asked him, ‘What can I say to convince the jury that this man didn’t intend to kill his wife?’"
"His reply, ‘Why would he want to kill his wife, mommy?’"
"I said, ‘That’s exactly it.’" At the summation Lord listed 22 points of reasonable doubt, and intent was number two. "He had no intent to kill his wife," she told the jury. "If he wanted to kill her, he had a gun right there. He invents drugs. If he wanted, he could have created a drug that could have gone undetected. He kills her in his pajamas and his socks. The coffee pot had two mugs sitting on the table. This is not the conduct of a man who wanted to kill his wife."
In spite of her insisting that family matters don’t hinder her career, the Nyce trial was particularly exhausting. On the night before she was to cross examine her opponents’ most important witness, she had to take her son to the hospital with a bad case of croup. She was up all night, sleepless, and went directly from the hospital to the courtroom. About halfway through the case Lord caught pneumonia (probably from the hospital visit, she says). And the night before she was supposed to make her summation, the electricity went out in her home.
"I begged the judge to continue from Thursday to Monday," she says, "though I had rough notes ready for the summation." She spent the weekend writing and re-writing her notes, finally transcribing them to the flip chart that function as note cards. She gets very nervous the night before, she admits, but "in the morning, I’m fine." Her style, she says, is to talk informally to the jurors as if she were sitting down and having coffee with them.
"I just do it without thinking. You can’t practice this kind of stuff. It wouldn’t look natural," she says. "And if you practiced, you’d think you’d said things when you hadn’t. I know what I want to do and how I want to do it, but it never comes out twice the same way. You have to be fresh."
Though Lord is passionate about defending accused criminals (a plaque commemorating the notorious criminal, John Dillinger, hangs on the office wall along with the usual certificates), and though she earned her spurs as a public defender, she avoids pro bono cases now.
Last year, when her daughter was just a year old, she took a pro bono case for Henry Minas, a mentally retarded person accused of murdering a 13-year-old girl. She wanted to prove him innocent, and she managed to help him by getting the verdict reduced to manslaughter. "But I lost of a lot of money because I couldn’t do anything else for that time," she points out. And now her policy has changed: "The bottom line, if they can’t pay it, they can’t have me."
Next: The Sentencing
What the Nyce family has paid to Lord is not known, but they will probably be paying more, because they have said they intend to file an appeal. Judge Mathesius revoked Nyce’s $750,000 bail and sent him to the county correction center until the sentencing hearing, set for Friday, September 9. The passion/provocation charge carries a term of 5 to 10 years, and Nyce must serve 85 percent of that before applying for parole. The jury also convicted Nyce of a fourth-degree crime, tampering with physical evidence, which could add up to 18 months or more.
Interviewed by CNN’s Nancy Grace (a former prosecutor and aggressive victims’ rights advocate) on the night the verdict was delivered, Lord said, "I was hopeful that they would agree completely with us that this was a complete accident. But we were grateful that the most he was convicted of was, in fact, just passion provocation. The most he’ll do in jail is just short of five years."
Melodia Ragenil, the sister of the victim, reportedly hissed at Nyce when he was taken away in handcuffs and said that she had wanted a murder conviction. Likewise, the prosecutors, Ed Meidt and Doris Galuchie, said they were disappointed because they thought had the elements for a murder conviction. The victim’s family has also said it may file a civil suit for wrongful death. Stark & Stark’s Sandy Durst is representing the children, and Michelle’s father, Teodora Rivera, is reportedly saying that he wants to have input on the decisions made for them.
Emily Nyce, Jonathan Nyce’s mother, said she was not at all satisfied with the verdict, that she thought her son was innocent. "It was very dramatic when they handcuffed him and led him out, and he looked really devastated. I felt really sorry for his parents," says John Glatt, who is writing a book on Nyce for St. Martin’s Press.
Nyce’s father, who has the same name as his son, had attended every day of the trial and pronounced it "a sad and unfortunate and tragic accident." They live in Collegeville, a suburb northwest of Philadelphia near Valley Forge. Nearby live Nyce’s brother, Michael, a dentist, and his wife, and they are taking care of the three children (now ages 5, 10, and 12).
More than a dozen Nyce family members and friends, including his elderly grandmother, assembled for the closing days. They sat on two long benches behind the defendant, and during the breaks in courtroom proceedings they stood around and chatted with the defendant with the sad yet determinedly cheerful attitude often adapted by bereaved families who are receiving visitors in a funeral home. One family member was quoted in the Times of Trenton as saying the family had created "a circle of love" around the unfortunate event.
"When you love somebody you do anything to keep what you have," says Harry Luna, the Trenton community leader. "I think it was just an average family, like everybody else, but there was an unfortunate event. We can get blinded by our decisions, and for every action there is a reaction."
As for Lord, Luna says, "I know she is a very strong-minded attorney. She gives 100 percent of whatever she does. It is good for the young girls to see that a woman can pursue a career as an attorney. But when she goes to bat for career criminals, it makes your blood boil," says Luna. "The career criminals are Robin Lord’s customers – as well as the guy who is just looking for a fair trial."
The Aftermath of EpiGenesis
Six years ago Jonathan Nyce had a reputation for being a brilliant scientist with a great deal of self confidence. He was convinced that he was a pioneer in what he called "the pharmacology of the future." He planned to use antisense therapies to disable harmful genes and make the treatment of respiratory diseases as easy as flipping a genetic switch ("Flipping Off the Asthma Switch," March 17, 1999).
Nyce was particularly passionate about his technology because, as children, both he and his brother suffered from asthma. He told of experiencing a severe reoccurrence of asthma, of having coughing fits while he was trying to give a paper at a professional meeting. He said he was empathetic to other asthma sufferers and noted that each year approximately 7,000 people die from asthma-related illnesses. Said Nyce then: "It’s hard to imagine something worse than not being able to breathe."
In that 1999 interview, Nyce also told about his father, a machine designer in Collegeville, Pennsylvania, who "worked around the clock one night to design the machinery to knit the first pair of pantyhose. But because he had a new family, he was unable to capitalize on that discovery, whereas his partner was able to run with it. He told me that if I were ever in a similar position, to be sure I could capitalize on it."
In retrospect, that is exactly what happened to Nyce’s company. A graduate of Temple University, Jonathan Nyce earned a PhD from the Fels Research Institute at Temple University’s School of Medicine. He did post graduate work in Los Angeles at the Children’s Hospital and then worked at the Kenneth Norris Cancer Center. In 1987 he went to the East Carolina University School of Medicine, where he had a tenured position as a full professor in the department of molecular pharmacology and therapeutics.
In 1991 he met his future wife, Michelle, in the Philippines. They were married and had the first of their three children in 1993.
Nyce patented some of the intellectual property that he was working on and founded his company in North Carolina in 1995. He had two candidates for clinical trials for asthma and one for cancer, and he thought his gene-based therapies could also work for other respiratory diseases. In 1998 the family moved to Princeton, to a home in Princeton Landing. The business was located at 5,000 square feet at Exit 8A.
In addition to Nyce’s personal investment in the company, by March, 1999, he had raised a total of $11 million. He was heartened by both the money and the scientific validation he was getting from the National Institutes of Health, and at one point noted that "the reviewers made embarrassingly nice comments."
In 2000 the company expanded to 20,000 feet at 7 Clarke Drive. The couple’s third child was born, and the family moved to an $860,000 home in Hopewell.
In 2001 EpiGenesis had a $100 million contract to license its experimental asthma drug to Taisho Pharmaceuticals in Tokyo and an ongoing $15 million deal with a firm in Italy, Chiesi Farmaceutici.
In ordinary times, Nyce’s company and his technology – using gene therapy to target asthma – might have succeeded. And clinical trials proved one of his therapies partially successful. But meanwhile most of the EpiGenesis funding, other than government grants, was coming from the Japanese firm.
This was during the dotcom bubble, when Internet companies were sucking money away from biotech. And at the moment when Nyce needed to raise some serious money, the web bubble had burst. EpiGenesis had only a small investor base, and new potential investors had empty pockets.
Care Capital LLC, a life sciences venture capital group on Hulfish Street, organized a $23 million financing round, which attracted additional monies from the NJTC Venture Fund, among others. "In a different time the former team could have raised money both to support the development of the compounds and the development of the platform," said David Ramsey, a Care Capital partner (U.S. 1, September 10, 2003). Jan Leschly, the CEO of Care Capital and formerly CEO of SmithKline Beecham, took over as chairman of EpiGenesis and reorganized the company.
In 2003 Leschly hired new management, including Joanne Leonard as CFO. (She is now the chief operating officer and the top-ranked company officer). Leonard, an alumna of Montclair State University, Class of ’85, had worked for a biotech company co-founded by Mark Leschly, Jan Leschly’s son. She took New York-based VI Technologies public, and was CFO and treasurer of Memory Pharmaceuticals in Montvale, and she raised a total of $270 million for those firms.
The investors downsized the company to 7,000 feet and put space up for sublease.
They eliminated any work on cancer and put the development of Nyce’s platform technology on hold. For instance, an early product was effective in patients who were not already receiving doses of inhaled steroids. But any asthma patient with enough money to pay for medication is already being dosed with inhaled steroids, so the market for Nyce’s therapy was not considered promising.
So in March, 2003, Nyce lost not only his original platform technology and his company, but also a job that would be very hard to replace. Within four months he would discover that his wife, Michelle, who was 20 years younger, had been having an affair with the gardener. Tension in the marriage escalated, and in January, 2004, Nyce was arrested for killing his wife when she came home from a meeting with her lover at Mount’s Motel. (Though he has said he will appeal the manslaughter verdict, he is waiting in the Mercer County Correctional facility for his September 9 sentencing hearing, page 36).
Meanwhile part of the antisense technology that Nyce had worked on at East Carolina University found a home at another new company, Endacea.
In spite of the headlines generated by the founder, EpiGenesis began to thrive. Another round of financing in May, 2004, brought an additional $9.6 million. Last month the firm managed to get a tenant for its too-big space; it subleased its former laboratory headquarters to a former neighbor at Cedar Brook Corporate Center, Valera Pharmaceuticals, and it moved to suitable office space for the current 10-person staff.
Also, earlier this year, EpiGenesis finished the second phase of its Phase II study on a new inhaling treatment for asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), including such diseases as emphysema. The data on the Phase II study won’t be ready until September, says COO Leonard.
Optimistic, Leonard is positioning the potential new product as a safer steroid, "as efficacious as other cortico-inhaled steroids but safer, because it does not result in some of the negative side effects. It doesn’t affect bone balance, and it is administered only once a day."
In addition to selling the single drug, Leonard hopes to partner with other companies, "showing that our drug in combination with other drug classes is very powerful for the same indications."
The 10-year-old firm is no longer working with gene therapy, says Leonard. "We are coming up with a better therapy than others on the market. We are trying to address the symptoms, not cure the disease."
EpiGenesis Pharmaceuticals Inc., 2009 Eastpark Boulevard, Eastpark at Exit 8A, Cranbury 08512. Joanne Leonard, chief operating officer. 609-409-6080; fax, 609-409-6126. Home page: www.epigene.com