Gerald Shargel, who unapologetically vowed to “do anything that the law will allow” to defend the Mafia bosses, crooked politicians and other miscreants he represented for more than four decades as a savvy criminal lawyer, died on Saturday at his home in Manhattan. He was 77.
The cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease, his wife, Terry, said.
“He was the best criminal lawyer of his generation,” said Joan Wexler, the former president and dean of Brooklyn Law School, his alma mater.
More often than not, he combined cogent legal scholarship with shrewd courtroom theatrics to vindicate a roster of white collar clients and Mafioso — including John Gotti, Anthony Provenzano, Joseph Gambino and Salvatore Gravano — whom the gregarious Mr. Shargel not only represented but befriended.
“Suffice it to say he put the Teflon in the Don,” Geraldo Rivera, the television journalist and Mr. Shargel’s former classmate at Brooklyn Law, said in an email, referring to Mr. Gotti’s moniker.
Mr. Shargel said that being accorded entree to mob sanctums like Mr. Gotti’s Ravenite Social Club in Little Italy was “cool because it’s like a movie.”
The lanky, bearded lawyer got so close to some Mafia clients that a federal district judge, I. Leo Glasser, removed him from representing one mob figure after prosecutors accused him of serving as “house counsel” to an organized crime family, an allegation he denied.
Mr. Gotti himself also got upset with Mr. Shargel, for being too talkative to reporters. The mob boss was caught on a wiretap warning his lawyer: “I’m gonna show him a better way than the elevator out of his office” (which was on the 32nd floor).
The message was encapsulated in a front-page Daily News headline on April 3, 1991: “Shaddup.”
On other tapes, Mr. Gotti referred to Mr. Shargel as “an errand boy” and was overheard boasting: “Jerry said, ‘Listen, John. You know I got one love — you.’”
Former U.S. District Judge John Gleeson, who as a federal prosecutor was one of Mr. Shargel’s chief adversaries, said, “What distinguished him most was he not only knew his case inside out and could plan a great defense strategy, but he was so disciplined.”
He said that while his successful motion to disqualify Mr. Shargel from the defense in a mob trial “is a matter of public record and speaks for itself, it does nothing to undermine the common ground and friendship Jerry and I found later in our careers.”
As a canny courtroom tactician, Mr. Shargel subjected prosecution witnesses to withering cross-examination, peppering them with sarcastic zingers that undermined their credibility and charmed juries.
When one witness explained that the accessories required for a mob induction included not only a needle to draw blood for the ritual oath, but a bottle of alcohol to sterilize the pinprick, Mr. Shargel asked mordantly: “In other words you were going to get into the Mafia, but you didn’t want to infect your finger?”
Mr. Shargel’s clients included murder suspects and a host of white collar criminals.
Among them were Nicholas Barbato, the former Republican boss of Smithtown, N.Y., who was acquitted in 1981 of taking $267,000 in bribes from a Long Island sewer contractor; and Stanley M. Friedman, a former deputy mayor and Bronx Democratic leader and mastermind of scandals during the 1980s who was convicted in a separate state case, but spared an additional prison term in 1991.
He also represented the hip-hop impresarios Irv and Chris (Gotti) Lorenzo (known as the Gotti brothers) who were accused of money-laundering drug profits through their record label, Murder Inc. They were acquitted.
Mr. Shargel demanded the truth from the two brothers to mount their defense, saying, “You have to make the snowballs. I’ll throw them,” Chris Lorenzo recalled.
“Jerry could move a jury emotionally and also had a total command of the law,” said Judd Burstein, who was briefly his law partner. “It was an extraordinary combination. And his style was unique because of his ability to speak to juries with an eloquent passion which made them want to believe him.”
“He was never ashamed of representing all those mobsters because a criminal lawyer represents criminals,” Mr. Burstein said.
Mr. Shargel argued that he was no more aggressive in defending his clients than the government was in prosecuting them.
Referring to the extortion and robbery case against John Gotti Jr., a son of the reputed mob boss, he said, “The Government’s campaign reminds me of something that Gregory Scarpa” — a deceased member of the Colombo crime family — “once was heard to say,” he told The New York Times in 1999. “After he killed a particular person, he was heard saying that he hated the guy so much that he wanted to dig him up and kill him again. The Government hates John Gotti, the father, so much that they’re trying him again, through his son.”
“Clients hire me,” he told The New Yorker in a 1994 profile, “because I’ll do anything that the law will allow, without concern for how it’s gonna make me look.”
Gerald Lawrence Shargel was born on Oct. 5, 1944, in New Brunswick, N.J. His father, Leo, owned a paint and wallpaper store. His mother, Lillian (Edenzon) Shargel, was a secretary in the math department at Rutgers University.
After graduating from Bound Brook High School in New Jersey, he earned a degree in history from Rutgers in 1962 and graduated in 1969 from Brooklyn Law School, where he was later a professor.
During law school, he interned with the United States Attorney’s office in Brooklyn, his only direct exposure to the logistics of a prosecutor’s office.
Sitting in on a trial, though, he became enamored with the case presented by James LaRossa, a prominent defense lawyer. He joined Mr. LaRossa’s firm after law school, working there until 1976. He then practiced as Shargel Law until 2013 and became a partner in Winston & Strawn until 2018.
In addition to his wife, the former Terry Krapes, he is survived by their daughter, Johanna Tobel; their son, David Shargel; six grandchildren; his mother, and his sister, Judy Shargel.
He was appalled by some of the violent crimes his clients were accused of, Mr. Shargel once said, but defense lawyers should not be motivated by whether the defendants they represent are guilty.
“A lot of clients tell me they’re innocent, because they think I’ll work harder for them,” he told The New Yorker. “That’s not true. It’s irrelevant. The question is: Can the state prove its case?”
Benjamin Weiser and Alan Feuer contributed reporting.