Why you should care
Because everyone’s entitled to a vigorous defense.
If Bruce Cutler hadn’t existed, chroniclers of New York City’s wilder sides might have had to create him. Cutler, the genius defense attorney who got murderous mob boss John Gotti acquitted no fewer than three times, is almost impossibly complicated. Well into his late 60s, the former football player and wrestler — once dubbed “the Cape buffalo in a bespoke suit” by The Washington Post — is still muscled, and he sparks to life during a phone call that catches him lunching at his Manhattan digs.
“The Gotti cases? Those were inflated,” Cutler says of the rumors of his jurisprudential greatness. “One was dismissed, another on acquittal, and for the other, the jury just wasn’t buying it, and it was a terrible case.” Yet, unjustifiably or not, and credit or blame notwithstanding, Cutler’s presence at Gotti’s side during the trials, on newspaper covers and at the Ravenite Social Club in Little Italy spoke volumes.
Unless you’re a degenerate piece of shit, there are only three reasons why you choose crime.…
“I really don’t know anything about Bruce Cutler,” says NYPD lieutenant and author Bernie Whalen. But he “was pretty good at getting him [Gotti] off.” Rumors flew that the trials had been compromised by juror misconduct, jury tampering and, not so surprisingly, witness intimidation. So the shadow remains, and lest it be forgotten, Gotti wasn’t just the father of some reality-TV stars; he had been the undisputed boss of the Gambino crime family, a job he got after allegedly ordering the murder of his boss, Paul Castellano.
“Unless you’re a degenerate piece of shit, there are only three reasons why you choose crime: poverty, despair and culture,” says Cutler. Gotti, who, after a subsequent conviction for racketeering, murder, loan-sharking, gambling, obstruction of justice, tax evasion and a variety of other charges, died in prison from complications connected to cancer, had grown up in a corrosive kind of poverty. And Cutler was ruled out of defending Gotti his last time in court — the time he lost — by prosecutors who made a claim that stuck: that he was close enough to Gotti to be called as a witness, making him literally “part of the evidence,” according to mafia chronicler Jerry Capeci in Mob Star.
“I miss John,” Cutler says, his voice dropping into a kind of courtroom earnestness. “I enjoyed his company. He wasn’t at liberty for a lot of our time together, but, not to criticize, that was the life he had chosen.” Cutler notes how Gotti’s cases helped put him on the map in the U.S., building a national profile that, beyond being the mouthpiece for the Dapper Don, included a brief time as Phil Spector’s lead defense attorney in 2007, TV shows, books, movies with Robert De Niro and an unexpected downside. “People were afraid to hire me,” Cutler says. They “didn’t want to seem to be connected to organized crime.”
This sentiment is seconded by former Newsday and Silurian Award–winning reporter Ed Newton, who, when asked about Cutler, tries to beg off. “Sorry, man. Leave me outta this one,” Newton says. “You could say he was the perfect mob lawyer in a lot of ways. Like ordered up from central casting, and arriving at 100 Centre Street ready for his close-up.”
But starting out as he did in the district attorney’s office, like his father, prosecuting thugs and then making the switch to defending them, Cutler is at a place in a career that’s not at all over but will probably — $1,000 silk suits, stogies and grandstanding with Gotti notwithstanding — never rise as high again. “My friend Pete Hamill hates the word ‘nostalgia,’ so I won’t use it, but I do get wistful,” says Cutler, who was recently invited out by the Southern District New York Court to receive some notice for his work on criminal defense.
“But I’m reimagining, reconstituting, reinstituting my practice,” he says, letting me know he’s very much still in the game. “Call me if you need me.”