White-Collar Crime

Pro se attorney credits holy card for acquittal in racketeering trial, along with 2 other lawyers

  • Print.

Criminal defense attorney Donald Manno was on trial in a federal racketeering case that could have put him in prison for the rest of his life, along with his former client, two other lawyers and additional defendants.

But with the help of trial skills honed over decades of practice and a holy card of St. Rita that he kept in his shirt pocket to represent his renewed Catholic faith, Manno won an acquittal last month after six months of trial in Camden, New Jersey, reports the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Manno, 68, said the case was the most difficult, emotionally, that he has ever tried. However, he felt that it made sense for him to defend himself pro se, because it gave the jury a chance to get to know him better, he tells the newspaper. “My defense was very simple: I was a criminal defense lawyer doing my job,” Manno said. “And what better way to demonstrate that than [by doing] the job in front of the jury?”

A dozen other defendants, including four more lawyers, were originally charged in the 2011 case. It revolved around a claimed scheme in which a publicly traded mortgage company, FirstPlus Financial Group Inc., was allegedly taken over and looted of $12 million by the defendants.

They included Manno’s longtime client, reputed mobster Nicodemo S. Scarfo, who is the son of a jailed Philadelphia organized crime boss.

By the time the case got to trial, there were only seven defendants. Manno and two other lawyers were acquitted. Scarfo, an alleged organized crime associate and two men who worked for the mortgage company were convicted, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported at the time.

The convicted defendants included Texas attorney William Maxwell, who was accused of taking $3.5 million in legal fees while doing minimal work for the mortgage company, according to the Big Trial blog.

In addition to Manno, the acquitted attorneys are New York practitioner David Adler, who worked on securities filings for FirstPlus, and Pennsylvania lawyer Gary McCarthy, who helped set up companies and business transactions related to the racketeering scheme.

Another Pennsylvania lawyer, Cory A. Leshner, pleaded guilty in 2013 to wire fraud conspiracy. A law student at the time of the crime, he had a role in managing limited liability companies on behalf of two convicted defendants in the case.

He was a witness for the prosecution against Manno and the other defendants this year, the Big Trial blog notes. It appears that Leshner may not yet have been sentenced in the case.

Among the defendants who lost at trial, Scarfo, at least, intends to appeal his conviction. His lawyer Mike Riley told the Inquirer that Scarfo had been unfairly portrayed as involved in organized crime due to his father’s notoriety, and convicted in a weak circumstantial case.

Although Manno was acquitted, fallout from the case continues. His Cherry Hill, New Jersey, law office was raided by the feds in 2008 and by the time the trial concluded he had lost all his clients, the Inquirer reports. A federal lien remains on his family’s home and some banks have refused to do business with him.

Nonetheless, he is looking forward to returning to practice.

“I’ll die with my boots on,” Manno tells the newspaper, adding that the experience of being arrested, handcuffed, searched, jailed and tried will make him a better lawyer.

“I always was able to empathize with my clients on an intellectual level. Now I can empathize on an emotional level,” he said.

Give us feedback, share a story tip or update, or report an error.