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Tampa attorney is a legend inside and outside the courts

As the most feared man at the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office, Norman Cannella Sr. chewed big cigars, carried a cocked-and-loaded Colt Commander, and made grown lawyers cry.

Although the genteel E.J. Salcines was the elected state attorney, from 1977 to 1983 few doubted that his aloof, flinty chief assistant ran the show. Not long from active duty as a Navy lieutenant, Cannella ruled the prosecutors' office as if it were a high-seas destroyer in wartime.

He boomed commands, handed out pink slips, and heaped abuse. From the military, he had learned a leader who freezes your blood is better than one who warms your heart. "I was feared," Cannella, now 60, says matter-of-factly. "They all trembled."

Equally imposing in the courtroom, Cannella, at once a Tampa native and the son of a Sicilian-born clothier, wooed jurors with a drawl that mingled the tone of a crusading Southern lawman with an Old World courtliness.

What a spectacular fall it seemed, then, when in 1984 federal agents led Cannella in handcuffs through a crush of cameras up the steps of Tampa's old federal courthouse. Robert Merkle, an ambitious U.S. Attorney, led a grand jury to indict him on charges he took $75,000 in bribes to protect a Tampa drug ring.

But a federal judge found the charges so flimsy he threw them out before they even reached a jury. And when Merkle died in May, his nickname, "Mad Dog," connoted in part a reputation for hard-charging recklessness.

Cannella, by contrast, has spent the last two decades building a reputation as one of Tampa's most respected defense lawyers.

Recently, Cannella has been in the news for representing one of five Plant High School seniors under investigation for the sexual assault of a 14-year-old girl. For Cannella, it's just the latest in a long string of thorny high-profile cases.

He represented former Tampa Police Chief Bennie Holder on a sexual harassment complaint, and former Hillsborough sheriff's Maj. Rocky Rodriguez during a department investigation into his behavior. He represented controversial land speculator Don Connolly, and Mac Greco Jr., the Culbreath Isles lawyer who famously rammed his neighborhood security gate.

He won an acquittal on a rape charge for Carl Allison, accused in 1991 of sexually assaulting a woman in a posh South Tampa home. In 1999, he convinced a federal judge to toss out charges against Howard Frankland II, the Tampa heir accused of having his mansion torched for insurance money.

Last year, when radio shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge Clem went on trial for having a wild pig killed during a broadcast, he picked Cannella, a passionate hunter, to represent him.

If killing a pig in the woods was not a crime, why was it a crime on the radio? Cannella asked. Clem walked.

For his closing argument in that case, Cannella memorized all the jurors' names, looked them in the eye, and thanked them individually for their service.

It was a tactic he pioneered in 1975, when he was prosecuting Betty Lou "The Black Widow" Haber for arranging to murder her mogul husband.

The defense had been referring to Cannella derisively as "the man at the end of the table."

"I said, "Ladies and gentleman, I'm Norman Cannella. I'm the man at the end of the table,' " Cannella said, then addressed them one by one. "Do you think for a moment that didn't get their attention? And don't you think that thereafter they were looking and listening to me?"

John Skye, an assistant public defender who used to work with Cannella at the State Attorney's Office, called it "one of those left-everyone-gasping sort of moments." No one, he said, had seen the move before.

At the prosecutor's office, Skye said, "I knew him as this gruff, monosyllabic, cigar-chomping guy who was kind of frightening and not very friendly," though his demeanor brightened "when he didn't have to play that role."

Because then-Hillsborough State Attorney E.J. Salcines disliked confrontation, the henchman duties fell to Cannella.

"Norman was the Antichrist," said Tampa lawyer Scott Tozian, a former prosecutor who recalls that Cannella once hurled a file at him "like a Frisbee" and reprimanded him for how he handled a case.

Cannella laughs now about being "the enforcer" of the office, but adds, "You need to be forceful, you need to be imposing. If I was there today, they'd have Human Resources on (me)."

Now and again, Cannella says, he'll go before judges who "shed a few tears" in his office when they were young prosecutors.

By the time he got to the State Attorney's Office in 1973, making $8,500 a year, he'd already served a stint in the Navy, logging hours as a radar intercept officer in an F-4 jet. Though he was not sent to Vietnam, he had to endure survival training in the Green Mountains of Maine, where the military locked him in a bamboo cage at a mock-up Vietnamese prison camp.

When the indictment hit in 1984, Cannella had left the State Attorney's Office for private practice. Federal agents found him fishing for bass in a phosphate pit in eastern Hillsborough. He was marched past the cameras in blue jeans and rubber boots.

Cannella was accused of participating in a drug ring led by the son of a Tampa underworld figure. But prosecutors acknowledged they had only circumstantial evidence against Cannella, and a U.S. district judge, in tossing the charges, ruled that the evidence was equally consistent with innocence.

Cannella said it was a lesson in the immense power of the government against a defendant. In his office, along with family photos and a picture of a huge elk he killed, he keeps a Latin phrase that means, "To accuse is human, to defend is divine."

"I have taken the opportunity on many occasions to inform clients that I have walked in their very shoes," Cannella said. "I do believe that gives them a little extra feeling I have a great understanding of their predicament."

When Merkle died this year after battling cancer, reporters wanted to know how Cannella felt about outlasting his nemesis. Cannella declined to gloat.

"I'm not sure what good it would have done to dance on his grave, to make light of his life, things that would hurt his family," Cannella said, but added: "Certainly he was ill-suited to the power he possessed."

Arnold Levine, a Tampa lawyer who represented one of Cannella's co-defendants in Merkle's corruption probe, said that despite Cannella's acquittal, he "was tainted, and had to struggle through financially . . . but his ultimate ability rose to the surface and he went on to be very successful."

A few months ago, a stranger came up to Cannella at the courthouse and sneeringly told him he recognized him as "that guy that got indicted." Cannella silently watched him walk off.

Cannella has three grown children from a previous marriage _ one of them a Tampa defense lawyer _ and is adopting the 10-year-old son of his current wife, a court reporter.

Cannella keeps a pair of giant elk horns mounted on the balcony of his Bayshore Boulevard home, because his wife won't let him keep them indoors. Doug Cone Jr., a longtime friend and son of road magnate Doug "Diesel" Cone, came to Cannella earlier this year when he wanted police to investigate the death of his mother. He said Cannella's "strong, silent, bad-boy" image draws women to him.

And yet, his wife, Lynn, said she avoided him at the courthouse for a long time, thinking he was in the Mafia. But she added that he's actually "very genteel" when you get to know him.

"Women are afraid of him," she said. "Which I kind of like, because it keeps everybody else at bay."

At the Hillsborough courthouse, people knew Cannella for carrying a "cocked and locked" .45-caliber Colt Commander. He held it on a husky defendant once, hidden under a stack of papers, during a particularly tense conference in his office.

But it's sometimes tough to separate the facts from the fables that have grown around Cannella. About 20 years ago, the story goes, he woke at home to find a man trying to steal his car tires. Cannella went out in his underwear and identified himself as the chief assistant state attorney. The thief asked for some ID.

"This is all the ID I need," he drawled, pointing his gun.

Asked if the story is true, Cannella smiles and shrugs. A lot of years have passed, and he can't remember the incident exactly. "It probably happened" that way, he said.

_ Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.