Legendary Tampa criminal defense attorney Barry Cohen dies at 79

Published September 22 2018
Updated September 22 2018

TAMPA — The accused and the wronged beat a path to Barry Cohen’s door.

The tenacious, canny criminal defense attorney took on pharmaceutical giants and law enforcement agencies. When judges and attorneys needed representation, they often reached out to him.

And when the odds seemed stacked against his clients, he would fight their case outside the courtroom, too.

When Steven and Marlene Aisenberg were the only suspects in the disappearance of their 5-month-old baby, Mr. Cohen’s defense included an appearance on Larry King Live. Charges were later dropped, and Mr. Cohen won the couple $3 million in legal fees.

When Hillsborough State Attorney E.J. Salcines was accused of case-fixing, Mr. Cohen took out a full-page newspaper advertisement to accuse then-U.S. Attorney Bob Merkle of a witch-hunt. No charges were brought.

But leukemia came with odds that not even the pugnacious Mr. Cohen could beat. He died Saturday (Sept. 22, 2018) at his home in South Tampa’s Hyde Park neighborhood, according to friend Kevin Kalwary, who said he received permission to confirm the death from Cohen’s wife. He was 79.

"One of Tampa’s treasures," said Kalwary, a private investigator and former journalist who covered, worked with and had been friends with Mr. Cohen for 40 years.

"If he was your friend, he was your friend ‘til the end," he said. "There was no wavering. Obviously, being the alpha dog adversarial lawyer that a number of trial lawyers are, he made enemies, and he would regret that they were enemies, but it never would have changed what he was doing. It was always for the client."

Mr. Cohen learned about 10 months ago that his myelodysplastic syndrome, a disease that affects normal blood cell production in the bone marrow, had progressed into full leukemia. His treatment at the Moffitt Cancer Center included a trial five-day-a-week chemotherapy regimen.

Illness meant the closure of his law firm, but Mr. Cohen couldn’t accept he had tried his last case. He hung onto a few clients hoping to work their cases from his Hyde Park home.

What he wanted most, he told the Tampa Bay Times in February, was more time with his family, including his wife, psychologist Barbara Casasa Cohen, and their son, Barry Alexander Cohen.

INTERVIEW: Legal lion Barry Cohen reveals leukemia and tells how it has changed his priorities

Mr. Cohen’s father, Irving P. Cohen, was a Brooklyn candy store owner before the family moved to Tampa. He later ran a scrap yard on Adamo Drive and worked as a cook. His mother, Rhea Cohen, became a successful local businesswoman and leader in the local Jewish community.

Mr. Cohen said his zeal for taking on authority came from the time when he saw his father was verbally abused and bullied by bosses while working in a kitchen. It affected him deeply, leaving him unable to abide bullies and pushing him into a law career that allowed him to take on authority.

"I swore I’d never be in a position to be bullied like that," he told the Times in February.

He got his law degree at Mercer University in Georgia and started a law firm in 1975. Over the next decades, he forged a reputation as an attorney who seldom lost, a trait that meant he was hired for some of the most high-profile cases in Tampa Bay.

They included Pinellas chiropractor William LaTorre, whose 35-foot boat hit a smaller vessel and killed four of the five teenagers onboard in 1989. LaTorre, who was charged with vessel homicide, was found not guilty after a six-week trial. He committed suicide in 2014.

Mr. Cohen kept elementary school teacher Jennifer Porter out of jail even after her hit-and-run accident left two children dead. He represented Joel Miller, the University of South Florida football walk-on who school officials determined had been hit by head coach Jim Leavitt, leading to Leavitt’s dismissal in 2010.

Mr. Cohen’s approach was to out-work and out-think his opponents, a goal spelled out on his law firm’s web site for anyone with the temerity to work for him: "That means following Barry’s lead: working nights, weekends, whatever it takes," the site reads. "It means reading every new book in Cohen’s extensive library dealing with jury selection, evidence, or other trial matters. It means doing all the things that other lawyers and law firms are simply unwilling or unable to do in order to be the best."

TIMES COLUMNIST SUE CARLTON: After a terminal diagnosis, Barry Cohen finds there’s no place he would rather be than a courtroom

His firm’s victories were commemorated in framed front pages from local and national publications that lined the walls of his law office and chronicled four decades of not-guilty verdicts and multimillion-dollar settlements.

But financial stresses took some of the gloss off that aura of success in recent years.

A lawsuit filed in 2014 by a disgruntled former employee revealed that Mr. Cohen owed financial firms about $35 million, which he said at the time was a result of his high-stakes litigation where attorney costs run up for years before a settlement is reached. His law firm had also "sold" anticipated legal fees at discounted rates, a way for law firms to create cash flow since banks are loathe to lend money on the basis of an expected settlement.

And in April, the owners of Fifth Third Central tower sued the Barry A. Cohen Legal Team claiming it owed them about $69,700 in rent on a penthouse office space.

Times staff writer Richard Danielson contributed to this report. Contact Christopher O’Donnell at [email protected] or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.