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Arnold Levine, ‘pit bull’ lawyer, championed Tampa Bay’s toughest cases

Levine was a courthouse fixture in Tampa for six decades, known for his aggressive representation of clients.
Arnold Levine at his Tampa law office.
Arnold Levine at his Tampa law office. [ Times (1999) ]
Published Jun. 12, 2020

TAMPA — They called him a pit bull in a charcoal suit.

In six decades as a lawyer, Arnold Levine was a fixture in courthouses around Tampa Bay, his name often surfacing in high-profile cases and high-dollar divorce actions.

He earned a reputation as a fearsome litigator — a defender of the accused, an advocate for the wronged, a vigorous legal strategist who opposing counsel sometimes came to disdain.

An adversary once threw coffee on him in settlement meeting.

“It was lukewarm. It had cream,” Mr. Levine later recalled. “I don’t know if it had sugar.”

He acknowledged that many lawyers probably wanted to do that to him.

“He was a gladiator in the courtroom,” said E.J. Salcines, the former state attorney and appellate judge. “He made quite a name for himself as an aggressive defense attorney.”

Mr. Levine died May 30 at his Tampa home after a battle with cancer. He was 88.

Attorney Arnold Levine holds up the shirt he said he was wearing when another attorney threw coffee at him. [Times (2000)]
Attorney Arnold Levine holds up the shirt he said he was wearing when another attorney threw coffee at him. [Times (2000)]

Born in 1931 in Brooklyn, N.Y., he was among the first in his family to attend college, graduating from New York University. He served in the U.S. Army and later became a cook at his mother’s Miami Beach restaurant. One day a friend told him he was quite intelligent and asked if he really wanted to work restaurants the rest of his life. It was then that Mr. Levine decided to become a lawyer. He earned a law degree from the University of Miami.

He came to Tampa in the early 1960′s, when he was tapped as a federal prosecutor in the newly created Middle District of Florida. It was where he met and worked with Salcines.

Years later, during Salcines’ tenure as Hillsborough State Attorney, he picked Mr. Levine to serve as a special prosecutor in the case of two men accused of murdering 11-year-old Jonathan Kushner. The crime hit hard in Tampa; Mr. Levine was an acquaintance of Kushner’s family. One of the defendants got the death penalty, the other life in prison.

But Mr. Levine made his name on the criminal defense side. Known as a zealous advocate for his clients, he sometimes represented the accused for free, reflecting a steadfast belief in the right to due process.

His son, Jeffrey Levine, recalls accompanying his father more than once to visit incarcerated clients. He remembers seeing his father complain to sheriff’s officials about the length of a particular defendant’s detention.

“It wasn’t a question of how much money you had,” his son said. “If it was something he felt was right, he would defend it to the last moment.”

He defended Perry Harvey, the late Tampa City Council member, who was accused of embezzling from the longshoreman’s union he led. Mr. Levine got him acquitted.

He defended Charles Davis, a Florida Highway Patrol trooper accused of shooting a man during an off-duty confrontation. A jury found him not guilty of murder.

Other clients over the years included the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the former owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning, and major league pitcher, Denny McLain.

As a litigator, the word was preparation, Salcines said. Mr. Levine would study a case for days, then hunker down when questioning witnesses, asking for detail, and more detail.

“In my 60 years in the courtroom, Arnie Levine was probably the best cross examiner I’ve seen,” Salcines said.

He had a knack for finding seldom-referenced points of law and capitalizing on them. He demonstrated it when he invoked a defense of battered spouse syndrome in the case of Mary Stiles, who was accused of hiring a man to kill her husband, an infamous crime known as the “Lobster Boy” case.

In a first-degree murder case in Pinellas County, Mr. Levine argued his client was temporarily insane from drug use when the killing occurred. The jury bought it.

He got assistance in that case from a Richard Lazzara, an old friend who is now a senior U.S. District judge. The pair had previously faced each other when Lazzara was a prosecutor. In one case, Lr. evine Mdefended a University of South Florida student charged with obscenity for using colorful language during a war protest. Mr. Levine got him acquitted.

“He wasn’t just a brilliant lawyer intellectually, but strategically,” Lazzara said. “You could not outwork Arnie.”

A mentor to younger lawyers, people often asked what it was like to work in his firm.

“He was probably the smartest person I’ve ever known,” said Steven Northcutt, who worked for 18 years with Mr. Levine’s firm before becoming an appellate judge. Levine was the best man at the judge’s wedding.

“I learned to be creative from him,” Northcutt said. "Loyalty was high on Arnie’s list. He inspired it and he gave it.”

Some questioned why Mr. Levine took certain cases, especially the ones that didn’t make money. But for Mr. Levine, the answer seemed to be that he loved a good fight.

His work in divorces earned him a reputation as the man to hire to end an expensive marriage.

Gail Levine and Arnie Levine appear during a silent auction event. [Times (2002)]
Gail Levine and Arnie Levine appear during a silent auction event. [Times (2002)]

It was perhaps a bit ironic that Mr. Levine’s own marriage was a long and happy one. He and his wife, Gail, met at the University of Miami. In six decades together, he never stopped trying to win her affections. He brought her coffee each morning. He was known to bring flowers and ask her for a spontaneous dance. He never refused a phone call.

In recalling his father, Jeffrey Levine said he’s reminded of a short story by Ernest Hemingway, “Pursuit as Happiness.” For Arnold Levine, happiness was not in victory and prosperity, but in the pursuit of it.

“He really lived life,” his son said. “And he never looked back."

• • •

BIOGRAPHY

Arnold D. Levine

Born: Dec. 12, 1931

Died: May 30, 2020

Survivors: wife Gail Levine, sister Harriet Wolfson, son Jeffrey (Louisa) Levine, daughters Beth Sullivan, Jill (Christopher) Crosby, and Suzanne “Sam” Katz. Nine grandchildren.

Services: The family held a private graveside service. A celebration of life is to be announced.