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When Florida Gators are in legal trouble, they come to trial lawyer Huntley Johnson

GAINESVILLE

Trial lawyer Huntley Johnson's woodshed is a cozy den in a 1915 Cracker cottage filled with rare books and sports collectibles. Baseballs far outnumber footballs on his shelves. He's a Detroit Tigers guy. But year after year, it's Florida Gator football players who end up in the woodshed.

Since 1984, Johnson has been the lawyer Gator athletes call when they get arrested. He averages five wayward Gators a year. His most recent is receiver Chris Rainey, who was charged in September with aggravated stalking.

Sports Illustrated calls Johnson the Matlock of Gainesville. Sports writers call him Florida's defensive MVP. He's not on retainer for the university. The NCAA prohibits pro bono. Some of his clients are pro bono, he says, but Gator athletes all pay something. He won't disclose his fees.

Satisfaction is practically guaranteed. Virtually every Gator player who hires him stays out of jail.

But each one starts out in the woodshed.

His clients often squeeze upward of 250 pounds into chairs designed for water boys. The lawyer doesn't ask them about guilt or innocence. He asks about home.

"Have you told your parents you got arrested?"

The answer is often no.

"Do you love them? Do you trust them?"

The answer is often yes.

"Do you think they'll trust you if you don't tell them?"

Huntley Johnson has been there. He's had his own troubles. He's an empathetic legal defender.

But he's always been his own worst lawyer.

The first time Johnson met his partner, Amy Osteryoung, was four years ago, on opposite sides, in court. She was a statewide prosecutor. He was defending a client in Lake City on racketeering charges.

On the first day of trial, a courtroom full of people waited to get started, but Johnson hadn't shown up. Osteryoung was steaming.

Finally, he strode into court wearing a full-length black leather trench coat.

"I'm Huntley Johnson," he said breezily.

"And you're 20 minutes late," she shot back.

They fought that case to a draw. She said he shredded her witnesses. She respected that. She got the conviction, but his guy got off with probation.

They've been partners for three years and there is still a kind of crackle in their relationship. He has the swagger, the inherent arrogance of a trial lawyer. He's 63 but has a youthful haircut and coaches his daughter's soccer team — on Saturdays, when the Gators play.

He's a book collector who favors tough-guy authors. Cormac McCarthy is his favorite. Gainesville novelist and noted hell-raiser Harry Crews thanks him in a book signing for never letting the sun set on him in a jail cell.

Osteryoung is the quieter partner, more cautious. Johnson is like a character in Boston Legal. He's always saying something that makes her eyes widen in disbelief.

He was always like that. He's the son of a Marine pilot. He joined the Marine Corps Reserve when he drew a high draft number during the Vietnam War. Afterward, he carried a Marine swagger into the University of Florida law school.

He got drunk at a party for a friend who was named editor of the law review. He got stopped on his way home and was arrested for driving while intoxicated.

It didn't faze him. He was 24.

"I was arrogant. I was an ex-Marine, in law school. I remember standing in the jail cell, telling myself, 'Now I know what I want to do. I want to be a criminal defense lawyer.' "

His humbling came after he pleaded no contest, when he finally told his father about the arrest.

His dad said, "You didn't trust my love enough to tell me?"

• • •

Arrests of Gator players draw enormous notoriety. Public reaction is generally unsympathetic. The Gator Nation feels betrayed — each arrest jeopardizes its team's perennial championship quest. Nonfans feel disgust — each arrest represents the excesses of college sports, the pampering of athletes, the abuse of undeserved celebrity.

But there's a mundane sameness to most of the cases. Initial police reports are sparse. The worst is often assumed. Felonies are charged, suspensions are ordered, condemnations are rolled out and immortalized on Google before the whole story is told. When the whole story does come out, the details often appear more dumb than criminal.

Football player Marquis Hannah had that problem last year. He was arrested in April 2009 for what appeared to be prison-worthy offenses: felony burglary of an occupied dwelling and misdemeanor battery. He was one of five football players arrested that year. The story about yet another wild Gator went everywhere.

It turned out that he'd walked into an apartment full of buddies he'd known since elementary school in Miami. Some of them had bad-mouthed his girlfriend. He'd gone over there, in his mind, to defend her honor. He ended up in a scuffle that brought the cops.

The case was never prosecuted, but Hannah's name now comes up on Google under the search words Gator football and burglary. Last month, he found himself named in stories about Chris Rainey.

That was especially worrisome because he is now taking graduate courses in law enforcement at Florida International University and hopes one day to become a federal agent.

He has no criminal record, but he has a Google record.

"I was wrong, and I paid for it, and my family paid for it," he said. "But I can't ever escape it. It's with me forever."

The Chris Rainey case has played out almost the same way. In September, he was charged with aggravated stalking, a felony, after showing up at a girlfriend's home in the predawn hours to argue with her. After she told him to leave, he sent her profane text messages. In one, he wrote, "Time to die (expletive)."

Later in court, the girlfriend said she hadn't felt in danger. She didn't want to prosecute. The state ended up deferring prosecution, meaning Rainey will have a clean record if he stays out of trouble.

Outwardly, it looks as if Rainey got off easy. But his lawyer argues otherwise.

Rainey was a kid who came from nothing, Johnson says. He was born in prison. He was raised by a grandmother. Football gave him the only chance he had. "He has worked like a dog," Johnson says, to keep a 2.8 grade point average. But at least for now, he's off the team. His junior year is passing by. His football future looks diminished. The words "aggravated stalking" will come up on computer searches if Rainey ever seeks a job in teaching or law enforcement.

So in a sense, Johnson says, he won the case. But Rainey lost.

• • •

Exoneration is something Johnson seldom promises. In most cases he works deals that fall short of exoneration. He's a trial lawyer, but the last place trial lawyers want to take their clients is to trial.

Parents have a hard time understanding that.

Cecil Newton Sr., father of backup quarterback Cam Newton, desperately wanted to go to trial when his son was arrested in 2008 on felony counts of burglary, larceny and obstruction of justice.

Initial police reports said the quarterback had stolen a $1,700 laptop from another student's room. When police tracked it to Newton's dorm room, he tossed it out a window while they waited at the door.

Newton did in fact have a stolen computer and he did throw it out a window. But burglary was never proven. He told his dad and his lawyer that his old laptop had been ruined by a sprinkler system mishap, and he'd bought a replacement from a guy at a price that should have made it obvious to him that it was hot.

Cam Newton firmly stated that he did not break into a fellow student's room. Blogs all over Gator Nation suggested otherwise.

"It was clearly, clearly overblown," said his father. "By media standards, it was a lynching."

The father believed that the only way to reverse the court of public opinion was by full-blown jury trial.

Bad idea, Johnson said. He has never taken a Gator to trial. Johnson told the family its wisest course was under the radar.

It worked. Johnson got a deal. Prosecution was deferred. Cam Newton now plays for Auburn University. He threw for five touchdowns in his first game this fall.

Newton's father said he is still pained by his son's permanent Internet linkage to a felony burglary.

But he said, "I'm glad we took Huntley Johnson's advice."

• • •

Ten years ago, Johnson got the same advice from his own lawyer.

He was being sued by a former office worker who accused him of sexual harassment. His attorney suggested they settle.

No way, Johnson said. She was lying. He never touched her. He'd been obscene, he said. He'd been lewd and crude. But he was a trial lawyer. What trial lawyer's office isn't lewd and crude? A jury would see that.

He went to trial. The woman produced shapshots she said he stuck in her files. He claimed she took them from his bookcase. Her attorney had them enlarged. The jury got a long look at life-sized posters.

They showed Johnson in the buff.

The jury's verdict was for $1 million. The case was later settled for less, but it still cost him a lot of money.

"I was a bad client," Johnson now says.

He echoes the words losing defendants have muttered on their way to oblivion through the millennia.

"I should have listened to my lawyer."

Freelance journalist Ashley Ross contributed to this story.

John Barry can be reached at jbarry@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2258.

When Florida Gators are in legal trouble, they come to trial lawyer Huntley Johnson 10/09/10 [Last modified: Monday, October 11, 2010 2:58pm]

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