Carlton: After a terminal diagnosis, powerhouse attorney Barry Cohen lives his life

Prominent Tampa attorney Barry Cohen has leukemia. \uFEFF
Prominent Tampa attorney Barry Cohen has leukemia. \uFEFF
Published August 24 2018

Lately people have been asking how Barry Cohen — that prominent, outspoken, bull-in-a-china-shop, love-him-or-hate-him Tampa lawyer— has been doing since his grave leukemia diagnosis.

The answer is that Barry Cohen is living his life.

Doctors told him he had two or three months left five months ago. Cohen tells me he’s tried to negotiate with God on this point, but he suspects God knows he’ll ask for five years and, at the end of that, try to renegotiate five more.

He is 79, weaker than he’d ever care to be but as much fun to talk to as ever, outrageous and opinionated, sitting in a butter-soft armchair in his red-brick Hyde Park home. When I ask about the curved ivory pendant that hangs at his neck, he tells me it’s an actual African lion’s tooth. This seems appropriate to his lawyerly reputation. He says it’s a gift from a friend, one he will make sure is returned when he is gone.

There are so many stories: the Wild West days of fighting U.S. Attorney Bob "Mad Dog" Merkle, taking on the Hillsborough sheriff’s office — rather blisteringly — for the parents of missing baby Sabrina, keeping teacher Jennifer Porter out of prison even after she’d hit children with her car and fled. It is never boring to hear how his brain works, the paths it takes.

There are lesser-known stories, too, like the one about how he once handed embattled President Bill Clinton a letter at a party offering to represent Clinton because clearly the president was getting bad legal advice on those salacious allegations. (Cohen’s counsel would have been to tell the truth, though Clinton never did call.)

He has a few regrets. He wishes he could have tried a case alongside his daughter, a Chicago lawyer.

He despises what he sees as the utter unfairness to the accused in the rigid federal criminal justice system — no pre-trial depositions, for example. "It ain’t supposed to be easy to convict people. It’s supposed to be hard to convict people," he says. Things he thinks unfair have long been his fuel. It rankles him that people go along to get along, that more don’t speak out. It is unlikely anyone will ever accuse Barry Cohen of not speaking out.

He talks about the stories a lawyer friend has agreed to tell at his funeral — things he is proud of — and about what his rabbi will say. He jokes that people call to check on him just to see when his wife, psychologist Barbara Casasa Cohen, might be available again. He calls her, more seriously, the love of his life. His voice softens when he talks of his teenage son who is his namesake.

He mentions nontraditional medicine, maybe. He talks about a case he’d like to be around to try. He also says he is in a peaceful place.

Recently, Cohen went to the courthouse to watch the end of a case he had passed on to attorney Steve Yerrid, a close friend. Closing arguments were supposed to be done by noon, plenty of time to get him to his 1 p.m. appointment at Moffitt Cancer Center. But lawyers like to talk and noon came and went.

His wife whispered they really should go, and he thought about that, and about how his doctor gave him the advice: "Live your life." He thought there was nowhere he would rather be than in that courtroom.

So he skipped his appointment to see to the end the kind of battle that has been his life’s blood. He stayed a little longer, living his life.