A Defendant for the Defense, Following His Own Rules
By MICHAEL BRICK
June 2, 2007
An unwritten playbook seems to guide jailhouse lawyers: bring a dramatic flair, rant and rave, put the whole system on trial. Point your fingers. Wave your arms around. Grow a catawampus mane of wild-man hair if at all possible. Call out the police for laziness, the prosecutors for zealousness and the whole establishment for racism, sexism, ageism, xenophobia, catatonia and misanthropy. If all else fails, refuse to appear in the courtroom.
Gregory Zalevsky is not following the playbook. He plays for sympathy, not outrage, as both defendant and defense lawyer at his murder trial, which continues next week in state Supreme Court in Brooklyn.
“This case is very emotional, very personal, very sad,” Mr. Zalevsky told potential jurors on Wednesday, drawing one of many objections from the prosecutor. “The only other time I’ve felt similar pain is when my mother died in 1993.”
With an arsenal of bad posture and loud sighs, soft paunch and hushed, almost groveling tones, Mr. Zalevsky, 57, has turned his trial into something of a humility contest.
The case centers on the death of Irina Ilyina, 34, who prosecutors say was smothered and strangled inside Mr. Zalevsky’s apartment in Brighton Beach on July 4, 2004. Ms. Ilyina, a mother of two young girls, was dating Mr. Zalevsky while pursuing a divorce against Igor Orak, 36, the father of her two young daughters.
Mr. Orak, a real estate lawyer from New Jersey, had left his wife 12 days after their second child was born to take up with a woman he described in his testimony as “a stripper at a go-go bar in New Jersey.” Suggesting that Mr. Orak was the real killer, Mr. Zalevsky has portrayed himself as a wrongly accused lover, his grief compounded by the prosecution.
In court, his main adversary is Jonathan S. Kaye, an assistant district attorney with a jarhead haircut and the blocky features of a man who plainly knows how it feels to be punched in the face. Mr. Kaye has matched the defendant’s demeanor with a choice of soothing, schoolmasterly tones over harsh rhetoric.
“Does everybody think they’re able to focus on the issues of this case and not get distracted by extraneous things, such as the defendant representing himself?” he asked potential jurors. Later, he put his concern more bluntly: “I may come across as — not a bully, but — if he doesn’t follow the rules of evidence, it’s my obligation to object.”
At the defense table, Mr. Zalevsky sits beside Terence J. Sweeney, the third defense lawyer assigned to the case. In a series of open letters before the trial, Mr. Zalevsky accused Mr. Sweeney of anti-Semitism and insanity, asked to be addressed as “detainee” rather than inmate and called for the recusal of the judge, Justice Matthew J. D’Emic.
“The defendant further expresses a great disappointment with All Three of the former Attorneys appointed by the court,” Mr. Zalevsky wrote.
To Mr. Sweeney, who has maintained a sort of amused patience through it all, he signed off: “I wish you the best in the rest of your Fruitful career.”
But their engagement was not through. Justice D’Emic declined to recuse himself and assigned Mr. Sweeney to serve as a legal adviser, an arrangement the defendant seems to have accepted with a wary sort of resignation.
For jury selection, Mr. Zalevsky arrived from jail in striped slacks, tan socks, stitched shoes, tortoiseshell glasses and an aging sweater, all variants of blue or brown but none quite matching. He rubbed his lip idly, scanned the panel, scribbled notes and seemed to try to ignore Mr. Sweeney out of existence.
In quick succession, Justice D’Emic eliminated from the panel two victims of domestic violence, a man whose friend was murdered, a woman who proclaimed herself unable to accept the concept of reasonable doubt and another who claimed to be scared of Russian men. Mr. Zalevsky questioned the candidates, mostly about their marriages.
“Good job,” Mr. Sweeney told him, in a tone of proud surprise.
The chosen panel included 11 women and one man, at their fore a young nanny who said she skipped crime articles in newspapers to “try to limit my intake of, I guess, more tragic stories.”
As the trial began on Thursday, Mr. Zalevsky seemed edgy. He objected to the testing of a video screen, then interrupted the prosecutor’s opening statement eight times, once by objecting to being called the victim’s “boyfriend.”
After the sixth objection, Justice D’Emic told him, “I can’t really have you making speeches here in front of the jury.”
In his own opening statement, Mr. Zalevsky warned jurors that the trial would be emotional, offered condolences to the victim’s family and suggested that her husband “should be the one on trial here, instead of the defendant.”
As Mr. Kaye called his witnesses, Mr. Zalevsky conducted cross-examination from his seat. After the victim’s father, Arkady Ilyin, recounted searching for his daughter, Mr. Zalevsky opened his inquiry with, “I’d like to ask if he permits me to ask questions.”
Then the victim’s husband, Mr. Orak, took the stand. Mr. Zalevsky displayed similar deference, even while accusing him of abusing his wife, endangering his unborn child and standing to profit financially from the killing.
“Good morning,” Mr. Zalevsky began, eliciting little more than a glare. His questions explored love and death, the terms of divorce, the significance of Independence Day, the Russian cultural symbolism of certain colors in floral arrangements sent to Ms. Ilyina and a bizarre meeting on an airplane, where Mr. Zalevsky and Ms. Ilyina were seated across from Mr. Orak and his new companion, the stripper.
At the end of the day’s testimony, he stood, submitted to a pair of handcuffs and returned to jail, where he signs his legal correspondence, “Respectfully, Gregory Zalevsky, defendant.”
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company