Albert J. Krieger, a defense lawyer who combined a prodigious memory, surgical interrogations and a courtly baritone to foil hostile witnesses against his often notorious clients, including the mobsters John Gotti and Joseph Bonanno and Miami’s so-called cocaine cowboys, died on May 14 in Miami. He was 96.
His death, at a care center, was confirmed by his daughter Luise Krieger-Martin, a Miami-Dade County Court judge.
A New Yorker who moved to Florida, Mr. Krieger unapologetically insisted that each of his accused clients should be presumed innocent, and he carried around a totemic copy of the Constitution as a reminder.
He often said that in his 60 years of practicing law he was proudest of having worked without a fee on behalf of the American Indian Movement members who occupied Wounded Knee, S.D., in 1973. He helped win acquittals or get charges dismissed against nearly all of the 150 defendants in that episode.
The defendants had seized a town on the Pine Ridge Reservation and held hostages at gunpoint to protest what they called corruption by tribal leaders and the government’s failure to fulfill treaty obligations.
Mr. Krieger was so celebrated in the criminal defense bar that potential clients and fellow lawyers needed no elaboration when the summons came to “Call Albert.”
Among those who did so was Mr. Gotti. Given his record and reputation, Mr. Krieger was asked by the interviewer Charlie Rose in 1992, why had he agreed to represent Mr. Gotti?
“The sense that I feel of criminal defense lawyers and what they owe to society mandated my accepting that retainer,” Mr. Krieger replied.
Law school students, and practicing lawyers, studied Mr. Krieger’s techniques for wearing down witnesses. There was, for example, the time in 1992 that he sought relentlessly to impugn the motives of Salvatore Gravano, Mr. Gotti’s former co-defendant in a murder, conspiracy and racketeering case that included the 1985 slaying of Paul Castellano.
That mob hit had elevated Mr. Gotti to boss of the Gambino crime family. Hoping for a reduced sentence, Mr. Gravano became the government’s star witness against Mr. Gotti.
“Mr. Gravano, what you were looking for, were you not, was not to spend all of your remaining days on this earth in jail, correct?” Mr. Krieger asked in court.
“I would imagine part of the reason is that,” Mr. Gravano said.
“And another reason was you wanted to turn yourself around and be a model citizen, correct?” Mr. Krieger said sarcastically.
“No,” Mr. Gravano replied, “not exactly.”
Explaining to the jury why in bugged conversations Mr. Gotti could hardly say “three words without cursing,” Mr. Krieger suggested that Mr. Gotti was guilty merely of abusing the English language by engaging in grandiose threats of violence embellished by machine-gun-velocity vulgarity.
“I think the evidence will show to you that John Gotti wishes he went to college and was a member of the Union League,” Mr. Krieger said, “and wishes he could say three words without cursing.”
Mr. Gotti seemed pleased with his lawyer’s testimonial but a bit mystified by the suggestion that he had harbored an ambition to join the venerable Union League Club, famous for its high-toned membership.
Earlier in his career, Mr. Krieger sought to temper his own style (his polished bald pate evoked the fictional detective Kojak) after he viewed himself in a training video for the National Criminal Defense College, which he helped establish in 1985 at Mercer University in Macon, Ga.
“If this is what I’m like when I’m trying to be gentle, what must I look like when I’m not,” he was quoted as saying by John Morton in the book “Gangland: The Lawyers” (2001). He compensated with proper grammar and decorum and, impressively, never needed a note.
Albert Joseph Krieger (his surname is German for “warrior”) was born on Nov. 4, 1923, in Manhattan to Lui and Ida (Arnow) Krieger. His father was a restaurateur.
After graduating from Long Beach High School on Long Island, Albert won a football scholarship to New York University and graduated in 1945. He served in the Army and earned a law degree from the New York University School of Law.
He married Irene Stoller, who attended many of his trials as a supporter and constructive critic, and who survives him. In addition to her and his daughter Luise, he is survived by his other children, Seth Krieger, Claudia Lewis, Kathy Streeter and Jaret T. Krieger; nine grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.
Over the decades, Mr. Krieger defended accused killers, drug smugglers and assorted gangsters, including the “Miami Vice”-era cocaine dealers Sal Magluta and Willie Falcon.
He also represented Joseph Bonanno, who had risen from Al Capone’s bootlegger to Mafia star. Mr. Bonanno’s son Bill sought out Mr. Krieger in the late 1960s after his father, who had vanished for months while facing a federal subpoena (and later claimed he had been kidnapped by a rival mob), decided to surrender to authorities.
Bill Bonanno wrote in “Bound by Honor: A Mafioso’s Story” (1999) that when he initially approached Mr. Krieger about negotiating the surrender he did not identify the potential client: “Krieger at first didn’t know if I was talking about someone who needed help with a traffic ticket or a murder rap.”
Thanks largely to Mr. Krieger and his partner, Susan Van Dusen, Joe Bonanno would remain free from imprisonment for more than a decade until he was convicted in another obstruction-of-justice case.
But Mr. Krieger’s most famous client, arguably, was Mr. Gotti. His lawyer Bruce Cutler, who had gotten Mr. Gotti acquitted in three previous federal trials, was disqualified because he was overheard on tapes that prosecutors planned to introduce in the latest case.
Mr. Krieger sought to discredit Mr. Gravano, reminding the 12 jurors and six alternates that he had confessed to 19 murders. “There are only 18 of you up here,” he told them. “We don’t have enough chairs to put the victims in. And that is the person with whom the government has dealt.”
The evidence from government eavesdropping was overwhelming, though. The trial began on Jan. 21, 1992; the jury returned on April 2 after deliberating for 13 hours and pronounced Mr. Gotti guilty. He died in prison in 2002.
Mr. Gravano was briefly secreted in the federal witness protection program, then moved to Arizona and worked under an assumed name as a swimming pool installer. In 2002, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison for buying and selling the drug Ecstasy. He was released in 2017.
Mr. Krieger, who was president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers from 1979 to 1980, once said that if an accused bank robber offered to pay his fee with $10,000 in cash, he would accept it even if he strongly suspected that the cash had come from robberies.
He said it would be ethically defensible because, unless the client blurted out that the money was stolen, any requirement that lawyers interrogate and investigate their clients could destroy the trust between them.
“It is the defense lawyer who says to the all-powerful government that it must prove that the charge was properly brought,” he said.
“As a citizen, I will accept the pronouncement of our highest court, whether I agree or disagree,” Mr. Krieger said. “But as a lawyer, if that rule fails to establish what is right, I am equally bound to struggle for its change.”