Director, Media Relations Communications
An "American Gangster" Comes to the Law Center
FROM HOLLYWOOD TO NEW BRUNSWICK
On the streets of Newark in the 1970s, Richard Roberts – then a young prosecutor -- began tracking down the source behind a deadly form of heroin that was flooding Harlem and the Essex County city where he worked.
Roberts headed the county’s narcotics task force and pieced together a case against Frank Lucas, who was smuggling bricks of the drug in the flag-draped coffins of American soldiers killed in Vietnam. After a trial in 1976, Lucas was convicted and sentenced to a 70-year prison term.
“We were able to get Lucas because of a trial… It was one of those trials where everything that could have happened did,” Roberts said. “It was a fun trial, but it was crazy.”
Roberts will tell the inside story of that case, which became the subject of Ridley Scott’s 2007 film “American Gangster,” when he is slated to speak Wednesday (11/19) at a meeting of the New Jersey State Bar Association’s Criminal Law Section in New Brunswick.
A DIFFERENT APPROACH
Section Chair Jim Gerrow, a retired prosecutor from Burlington County, who is now handling pro bono cases for the public defender’s office, said the event is meant to serve as a catalyst for members to get together and catch up.
Unlike traditional business meetings that don’t always draw a big crowd, organizers said they hope a local celebrity will boost attendance.
“We’ve tried a lot of things in terms of what we can do to remain relevant to the membership,” said Gerrow. “We thought we’d mix a little entertainment with the speakers. Richie is a hero in Essex County. When people are (at the event) we hope we can throw in a pitch for the association and the section and say ‘What can we do for you?”
Roberts was born in the Bronx and grew up in Newark, where he was captain of the football team at Weequahic High School. Growing up, he was a “street kid” and had his own brushes with the law, he said.
“I was nuts because I was naive and I didn’t realize the danger I was in. I was just having fun,” Roberts said. “But I lucked out.”
He went to college, served in the Marines, and worked as an Essex County detective. He eventually got a law degree and became an assistant prosecutor in Essex County.
It was there that Roberts zeroed in on Lucas, who fancied fur coats and a flashy lifestyle during his turn as drug lord.
A ‘CRAZY’ TRIAL
During the Lucas trial, there were accusations of jury tampering and a $100,000 contract was put out on Robert’s life. In a recent interview, Roberts - who is known as Richie and is now a criminal defense lawyer in West Caldwell - offered a sneak preview of the twists and turns the trial took.
The judge overseeing the case was known for passing notes to the lawyers through the sheriff’s officers in his courtroom. The notes listed questions the judge wanted asked. The Lucas trial, a case garnering national attention, was no different, except for the fact that Roberts refused to ask the questions.
“In the middle of the trial, the officers came to me and said ‘The judge is really upset with you,’” Roberts recalled.
The next time a question came out – despite the fact that Roberts said he felt it was meaningless – he posed it to the witness.
Predictably, some of the opposing attorneys objected. The judge jumped in, slammed down his gavel and yelled at Roberts for five minutes, berating him for asking such a terrible question.
“He set me up,” Roberts said, with a chuckle.
Lucas eventually served just seven years in prison before he was released and worked as an informant that led to dozens of convictions, including corrupt police officers. Lucas and Roberts developed a close relationship, and remain friends today.
A LEADING ROLE
The trial was the stuff of courthouse legend and caught the eye of filmmakers who told him they wanted to put it on the silver screen. That was a surreal moment, Roberts said.
“It happened 30 years ago and I was doing fine. And all of a sudden they wanted to make a movie,” Roberts said. “It took a long time and a lot of work to get it done.”
In the film “American Gangster,” Roberts was portrayed by Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington played the role of Lucas.
At times, the movie took liberties with reality. For instance, one scene in the movie shows Crowe leaping over a coffee table with a shotgun to kill a couple of bad guys.
“That I never did,” said Roberts. The filmmakers reminded him they were crafting entertainment, not a documentary.
Those who know Roberts use words like outgoing to describe him.
“He is really a nice person,” said longtime friend state deputy attorney general Robert Brass, a former chair of the section and a trustee of the association. They once worked together in the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office.
“Even though he has so much experience, when he gets the novice assistant prosecutor, he treats them with utmost respect,” Brass said.
A SENSE OF FAIRNESS
Roberts is now working on a book about his life, the film, the streets of Newark and the criminal justice system.
When he’s not working on the book, Roberts has a full load of cases represented people accused of crimes. And trials still get his juices flowing.
“It’s competitive for me. And even though my heart is on the other side, I still enjoy it,” he said. “You’d be surprised; there are people who are innocent. And I like to beat up on the government. There are things police are doing that are improper. It is a small minority, but if I can catch some of those guys I love it.”
A career in the law – be it as an investigator, a prosecutor or defense lawyer - has always been about fairness, he said.
“It is an attempt to be fair. Everybody tries at least, and that is what really appealed to me,” he said. “I kid around a lot, but really and sincerely I believe strongly that without the law we are nothing and it is so important in every aspect of life.”
The event is open to all attorneys. Cost is $16 for members and $25 for non-members. To register visit www.njsba.com.
The New Jersey State Bar Association is the state’s premiere voluntary lawyers group. It is dedicated to the continuing education of lawyers and the public and to reforming and improving the legal system. It encourages involvement in voluntary pro bono activities and supports the fair administration of justice. Incorporated in 1899, it is the state’s largest lawyers group. Visit the Association at www.njsba.com.