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by kenn on 12/14/2005 01:04:00 PM

A low-key lawyer becomes the go-to guy for star rappers
Source: philly.com


Fortunato Perri Jr. says cases are often won or lost by cross-examination.By Jacqueline SoteropoulosInquirer Staff WriterHigh-profile Philadelphia defense attorney Fortunato Perri Jr. is low-key and universally liked - until he's in the midst of his courtroom specialty: cross-examination.

His skills in that arena have won him both victories and clients, including rapper Beanie Sigel, who rejected national-name lawyers and stuck with a neighborhood guy who grew up in the city's Frankford section.

Now, "Fred" Perri, 43, has essentially become the go-to attorney to Philadelphia's rap stars. He is also the lawyer for rapper Cassidy, due to stand trial in January on charges of first-degree murder in a Cedarbrook killing.
His clients reflect what Philadelphia's legal community has known for years: In a courtroom, it's good to have Perri on your side.

Veteran defense lawyer Tariq El-Shabazz calls Perri "a dynamic attorney. He definitely is among the best in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania."
Offers a longtime Philadelphia homicide prosecutor, Assistant District Attorney Mark Gilson: "On those rare occasions when I know somebody who needs a lawyer, I send them to Fred."

Gilson, who grudgingly credits Perri as the only lawyer who has won two murder acquittals against him, said the defense attorney's strength is that he's "a regular guy."

"He's not some fancy, high-priced, highfalutin defense attorney. He's not flashy. He's not flamboyant. He's very articulate, and he's very passionate, and he's very likable," Gilson said.

When Perri met Sigel, the future rap star was a 19-year-old kid who had been shot in the leg - and Perri's client was the one accused of pulling the trigger.
Perri ruthlessly cross-examined Sigel, who then went by his real name, Dwight Grant. At the end of the 1994 trial, jurors found Perri's client not guilty of aggravated assault and all other charges.

That cross-examination made an impression on Sigel: Within a couple of years, he hired Perri to represent him in legal matters.
"I lit him up pretty good," Perri recalls with a chuckle. "We joke about it once in a while."

Sigel's measure of Perri was validated earlier this fall, when Perri ripped apart the testimony of two prosecution witnesses and won an acquittal for Sigel on attempted-murder charges.

In the Sigel case, Perri's law partner Brian McMonagle said Perri "really represented Dwight when he was Dwight, before he got big."
McMonagle added that Sigel stuck with Perri even when advisers in the recording industry thought he should find an out-of-town attorney - there was talk of Johnnie Cochran - for his mounting legal woes. In 2004, Sigel pleaded guilty to gun and prescription-drug-possession charges and spent a year in federal prison.
"New York had some other ideas. They wanted a national name - and Beanie refused. He said, 'This is my lawyer. This is my gun,' " McMonagle said.
Cochran - the celebrity lawyer who died in March and was best known for winning an acquittal for O.J. Simpson during his sensational murder trial - is about the last person Philadelphia lawyers would compare to Perri.

"People like Fred Perri," Gilson said. "Jurors like him, judges like him, cops like him."

Gilson said that Perri doesn't talk down to jurors or insult their intelligence.
"He relates well to Philadelphia jurors because he's a neighborhood kid. You look at him, and you see in him a kid you grew up with, who did well in school, and did well for himself," Gilson said.

Perri is the son of Traffic Court Judge Fortunato Perri, who in the 1970s served two terms in the state legislature.

He grew up in the city's Frankford section and graduated from Frankford High. In 1978, he played safety on the school's city championship football team. He followed an older sister to West Chester University and went on to Widener University's law school because he wanted to stay in the area.

He lives in Northeast Philadelphia with his wife, Lisa, and their four children, just a few miles from where he was reared.

Perri worked as a Philadelphia prosecutor for two years before resigning to run in 1990 for his father's old seat in the State House. He narrowly lost.
In 1995, he and close friend McMonagle launched their own law firm - McMonagle, Perri, McHugh & Mischak.

Perri said cases are often won or lost during cross-examinations and closing arguments.

In the Sigel case, no physical evidence tied the rapper to the crime, and a key prosecution witness crumbled on the witness stand.
"You didn't see this shooting, did you?" Perri asked David Aimes, a friend of the victim.

"Not really," Aimes replied.

"You're going by what other people told you, aren't you?" Perri asked.
"A little bit," Aimes said.

With jurors paying close attention, Perri dissected multiple contradictions and inconsistencies in Aimes' testimony and statements to police, and in his closing argument told the jury that the witness could not be trusted.

Cross-examination "is an opportunity to try to get to the truth, and there's an art to it," Perri explained. "I try to get better every day doing it... . You have to anticipate answers and the way a witness has to be handled."

During closing arguments, Perri never reads a speech, and he tries not even to glance at his notes when he speaks to jurors.

"I think you have to talk to them," Perri said. "I just think you have to be prepared with the facts of the case and rely on common sense."

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