Thornton case attorney is a low-key top gun

TAMPA — His name doesn't grace his law firm's door, and he's often referred to in news reports as "one of Barry Cohen's attorneys."

But during the past decade, Steve Romine, who overcame his childhood fear of public speaking to become a respected board-certified criminal trial lawyer, has played a major role in some of his high-profile employer's most high-profile cases.

His cross examination of a star witness helped unravel the federal prosecution of missing baby Sabrina Aisenberg's parents. His private arguments with Cohen prodded the senior lawyer to forgo a risky trial in a defense that kept teacher Jennifer Porter out of prison for fleeing a crash that killed two children.

And in Ocala last week, Romine convinced a senior judge and prosecutors that a teen sentenced to 30 years in prison for a fatal Citrus County car crash got a raw deal. William Thornton, behind bars since 2005, won a release from jail and a shot at a lighter sentence.

The latest victory was pure Romine. He took up the appeal at no charge because it was the right thing to do, then took on the people he felt had wronged Thornton — including a sitting circuit judge. Somehow, he managed not to come off as a jerk in the process.

"He'll go where his sense of justice takes him," said Cohen, the man who gets most of the press at the Cohen, Jayson & Foster law firm in Tampa.

"He's not at all intimidated about whose toes he has to step on to see that justice is done," Cohen added. "He demands respect, and he gives respect."

There was a time, however, when the Clearwater native could never have imagined himself commanding center stage in a room full of strangers. Romine, 41, said he was so shy in his youth that he briefly considered leaving college to avoid a public speaking class, horrifying his teacher mother.

He ended up taking the course, and got a laugh from classmates after his first speech. He realized he was actually having fun.

He went to law school at Nova Southeastern University thinking he would become a contract lawyer because he loved to write. He graduated in 1991 with a love for litigation.

Romine spent just 10 months as a prosecutor before deciding that he belonged on the other side of the aisle. Criminal defense work challenged him more and allowed greater creativity.

"The state's got every resource in the world. They get to pick the fight," Romine said. "To win a game that you're starting off at a disadvantage, that's, you know, a lot more interesting to me."

During seven years at the Public Defender's Office, Romine impressed his superiors and judges with his meticulous preparation and deft interaction with clients. Back then, however, his approach could sometimes be more irritating than charming.

"He's never one to shoot from the hip," said lawyer David Parry, a friend and former boss now in private practice. "I think early on he was almost too tedious at times."

Romine handled some of his own appeals, determined to see a case through to the end. One case led to a landmark Florida Supreme Court decision about a minor's right to privacy when having consensual sex with another minor. The court threw out a statutory rape charge against a 16-year-old boy accused of having sex with a 16-year-old girl.

Parry said Romine's work ethic has served him well in Cohen's office, which is known for producing volumes of investigative materials and conducting hours-long depositions that probe every aspect of a case.

Romine jokes that he used to like to travel. These days, he spends his rare free time keeping up with professional soccer and politics, and hanging out with his wife and 2 1/2-year-old daughter at their Largo home.

He chooses his words carefully with reporters, preferring to let his on-the-record comments in court speak for themselves. But around his office, he's known for practical jokes and imitations. That includes a spot-on voice impersonation of his current boss — though not in front of Cohen.

The two attorneys talk of their mutual respect for each other, and Cohen says he likes for Romine to have independence and his own identity in the firm.

"Steve is not a yes man by any stretch of the imagination," Cohen said.

Romine has his detractors — he's a lawyer, after all — but even they acknowledge that he does well by his clients. Cohen, 69, considered it a badge of honor when one opposing attorney criticized Romine as a "bulldog" attorney in a court pleading a few years back.

"He's a very good advocate, but also he won't cross the line," said Assistant State Attorney Richard Buxman, who prosecuted the Thornton case. "He treats people with the utmost respect."

The outcome of last week's hearing got him plenty in return. When it was over, Lola Thornton said her son's attorney reminded her of Matlock, her favorite TV lawyer. The presiding judge's staff attorney asked to shake Romine's hand.

Outside the courtroom, reporters lined up for interviews. They thrust their microphones into Romine's face and asked him to spell his name.

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

Thornton case attorney is a low-key top gun 12/23/08 [Last modified: Friday, December 26, 2008 10:09am]

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