Attorney Glen Lerner, the self-described "Heavy Hitter," took a hit himself Tuesday when a district judge took him to task for missing the first day of his client's murder trial.
Judge Michelle Leavitt also was angry because Lerner, a personal injury lawyer, told the district attorney's office he wasn't going to appear in court to defend his client, because he was out of state "on sabbatical" and didn't care if the judge punished him, a county prosecutor said.
In a message left on county prosecutor Roy Nelson's voice mail over the weekend, Lerner says he won't be returning to Las Vegas from Pennsylvania, and "if the judge wants to sanction me, she can sanction me," according to the recording.
Nelson, who is prosecuting the murder case, said he forwarded a copy of the recording to Leavitt's office on Tuesday.
Lerner was scheduled Tuesday afternoon to defend 41-year-old Mario Lino, who is accused of the April 2007 killing of a man suspected of having an affair with his wife. Lerner said he took the criminal case at no cost to his client because Lino works on his swimming pool.
Leavitt said she was shocked that an attorney wouldn't appear in court to defend a client.
"I've never had anything like this happen before. Defense counsel just thinking they don't have to show up for a murder trial? It doesn't get more serious than a murder trial," said a clearly frustrated Leavitt, adding she was upset that Lerner wasted the time of more than 50 potential jurors who went to the courthouse on Tuesday for jury selection.
Leavitt said she had considered bringing contempt charges against Lerner and would report his behavior to the state bar.
Leavitt also took the murder case away from Lerner and re-assigned it to the public defender's office.
"It doesn't appear that he cares if he gets sanctioned or not. But most people care about their freedom. And that's something I can take from him," Leavitt said, adding that she wanted to hear from Lerner why he didn't show up in court.
Lerner is widely known for his colorful commercials and catchy jingles. In one, he spins like the cartoon Tasmanian Devil. In another, he boasts that insurance companies sent him more than $25 million in settlements.
Lino appeared in court with another attorney from Lerner's office, Daniel Ingrassia, who was called at the last minute. Ingrassia told the judge he has no criminal experience and wouldn't be trying the case.
Lino faces a life sentence. He told Leavitt that no one from Lerner's office had contacted him even after he had family members call the attorney's office.
"He (Lerner) hasn't made any effort to work with me," Lino said.
Reached in Pennsylvania, Lerner said he didn't attend the trial because he was out of state and wasn't prepared to go to trial. He said he called the district attorney's office last week to work out a deal for Lino, and when that failed he told the prosecutor that he wanted the trial delayed while he prepared for the case.
"I'd rather be sanctioned than railroad my guy into accepting 25 years in prison," Lerner said.
He characterized the problem as a breakdown in communication and said he would apologize to Leavitt.
Lerner said he's been on sabbatical for several months in Pennsylvania and expects to return to Las Vegas in March or possibly May. He said he has been writing a book and re-examining his life.
"I've been living the life of a rock star for so long," he said.
Lerner said he comes back to Las Vegas every few weeks to take care of his practice.
He conceded it appeared unprofessional to not be present for a trial, but he stressed that he was acting in his client's best interest and had informed Nelson that he was seeking a delay in the trial.
During a telephone conversation with a reporter, Lerner repeated several times, "There was nothing I could do."
"The judge is probably fuming. But what could I do?" he said.
During the hearing in District Court, Leavitt had an answer: "You get on a plane and you fly back."
Contact reporter David Kihara at firstname.lastname@example.org or (702) 380-1039.