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Epilogue | Victor Pellegrino

Lawyer Victor Pellegrino mastered DUI defense

TAMPA — Even before lawyer Victor Pellegrino uttered his first words in court, everyone knew he was there. Wearing a crisp suit with the perfect handkerchief, Mr. Pellegrino would plop his briefcase on the defense table and set up shop. He even brought a cup to hold his pens.

Prosecutors feared facing Mr. Pellegrino on driving-under-the-influence cases, which were his expertise. They made up most of his practice over a career of more than 30 years.

"Whenever we had a trial against him, all the misdemeanor prosecutors would come out and watch," said Nick Nazaretian, a former prosecutor who is now a Hillsborough County circuit judge. "It was kind of a David-and-Goliath thing.

"You had to have your 'A' game," he said.

Mr. Pellegrino, whose preparation and persuasive style helped him win a majority of his DUI cases, built a reputation as one of the nation's best lawyers for people accused of drinking and driving.

He died late Thursday of bladder and lung cancer. He was 60.

He defended clients whose actions appalled the community, including some who had confessed to DUI manslaughter. He challenged every aspect of a DUI arrest, from the reason his client was pulled over to the reliability of the breath test. His methods irked groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving — but they worked.

He advised other lawyers on how to defend DUI cases, and was the current dean of the National College for DUI Defense, an organization he helped start.

"He was highly competent, very well versed," said Michael Cohen, a law partner to well-known Miami DUI lawyer Richard Essen. "I would say if you had to pull 10 lawyers from anywhere in the country in terms of DUI defense, he definitely was in the top 10."

He had a near-photographic memory, said 15-year law partner Ronnie Crider, 61. "He was able to see or read something and then remember it, whether it was a minute detail about a case or personal information about a client. Then he was able to pull that out of his memory and use it."

Mr. Pellegrino, who grew up in Tampa, revealed his knack for organization as a child, said Irene Matye, Mr. Pellegrino's sister. "When my mom folded his clothes, he wanted to arrange them in the drawer himself," she said.

He was equally picky about juries. He asked potential jurors about everything from their reading habits to the bumper stickers they put on their cars. "If you're going to have jurors on your panel who do not drink and drive and don't like anybody who does, you are going to lose your case," he said in 1987.

He was admitted to the Florida Bar in 1977, the same year he graduated from Vermont Law School. In a Tampa case in 1983, he successfully argued that radio frequencies interfered with the Breathalyzer.

He got scores of breath-test results thrown out, either because the machines had not been tested or the regulations on how to test them were vaguely worded. In 1988, he got a case thrown out because the state had changed the name of the testing machine slightly without adding the new name to its list of approved machines.

He challenged all aspects of an arrest.

"Very often it's a matter of degree, of crossing a line," said Clearwater lawyer Denis deVlaming, a friend of 25 years. "Vic often would say to the state, 'My client didn't cross that line, and you're going to have to prove it.' "

Nazaretian carries a memento from his earliest days as a prosecutor, after he saw Mr. Pellegrino in action — a cup to hold his own pens. "I said, 'I want to be that guy,' " the judge recalled.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or ameacham@sptimes.com.

>>Biography

Victor Julius Pellegrino

Born: Aug. 17, 1948.

Died: June 4, 2009.

Survivors: wife, Brenda; father, John; mother, Amelia; sisters, Irene Matye and her husband, Brian, Diane Guerra and her husband, J.D.; daughter, Stephanie Sweeney and her husband, Dave; sons, Victor and his wife, Andrea, and John; three grandchildren; numerous nieces and nephews.

Service: 1 p.m. Friday; St. Lawrence Catholic Church, 5225 N Himes Ave., Tampa.

Lawyer Victor Pellegrino mastered DUI defense 06/06/09 [Last modified: Saturday, June 6, 2009 7:30pm]
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