Guilt-Edged

Pugnacious defense attorney Frank "Tony" Fabbri never backed away from a fight. Then the lawyer ran afoul of the law.

Fabbri repeatedly explores the metaphor in the weeks following his sentencing. "People know I've always been the guy that goes in and out the side door," he snarls. "They just never understood the depths of what I do."

Resolute one minute, Fabbri is resentful the next. He's upset that he went to court on October 5 with a $36,000 restitution payment – loaned to him by friends – and the judge didn't appear to take that into consideration. He's ticked that so many people stuck their necks out for him and it got him exactly nowhere.

"I got so many people in my corner," he says. "And I still got fucked."

"God love Tony," one ex-cop observes of Fabbri. "But he's a guy of excesses."
jennifer silverberg
"God love Tony," one ex-cop observes of Fabbri. "But he's a guy of excesses."
Friends, colleagues and adversaries wrote to U.S. District Court Judge William Stiehl on Fabbri's behalf. A PDF sampling of the letters is available online at here.
Friends, colleagues and adversaries wrote to U.S. District Court Judge William Stiehl on Fabbri's behalf. A PDF sampling of the letters is available online at here.

The "side door" vitriol extends to bitterness about his profession: The long-coveted seat on the bench that never opened to him. The new breed of prosecutor, who counts cases rather than accounting for individuals. The old camaraderie between prosecutors and the defense bar, now endangered, if not extinct.

The general public lacks an understanding of criminal defense, he laments. "We work much harder, much longer, with severely different hours than any other practice of law. We sacrifice more of our lives than any other lawyers. Civil lawyers can get paid like rock stars. We never get paid. And we can't deduct our losses. I can't say, 'I worked a hundred hours and he only paid me for three.' I can't do it."

The tirade continues: "As you get older, you start categorizing the time you spent on people, on certain things. How many years have I spent in jail? I've spent YEARS IN JAIL! YEARS! ALL I DO is go to jails. Where does a criminal lawyer go to practice? JAIL! I'm going to fit fucking PERFECTLY in JAIL!

"And the judge gave me eighteen months."

Fabbri's tone softens: "It's unfair that people spit on us. It's unfair that we're considered the dirt of the profession. I had the option of the other route: The elite or the shit. I chose the shit.

"And I got eighteen months."

Tall and wiry, with ivory locks that contain a tint of maize, and ribbons of fist-fighting scars around both temples, in the right light Fabbri almost calls to mind late-period Paul Newman – right down to pale eyes that gleam like a hustler's. He's partial to jewelry, and is never without a gold ring fashioned from a 98 A.D. Roman coin that he bought years ago from a Los Angeles dealer while browsing alongside boxer Mike Tyson.

Fabbri grew up in Woodstock, Illinois, a pastoral pleasantville of 6,000 inhabitants 60 miles outside Chicago whose local celebrity was Chester Gould, creator of the Dick Tracy comic strip. The "Crimestopper" kids popularized by Gould's cartoon were a caricature of local kids enrolled in a real program started by the Woodstock Police Department. Fabbri likes to say he was "one of the originals." In fact, his picture hangs in the Chester Gould-Dick Tracy Museum.

Frank Fabbri Jr. was an engineer bedeviled by health problems that stemmed from his military service in the Second World War. Frank III worked from age fourteen to help out. Later, an heir to the Sears, Roebuck and Co. fortune – "My grandfather was Mr. Sears' bodyguard," Fabbri explains – became his patron, helping get him through undergraduate studies at Northwestern University and Knox College.

In 1968 Fabbri came to St. Louis and enrolled in the Washington University School of Law. It was a tumultuous time on college campuses across the country, and Fabbri played a role in Wash. U.'s unrest. During the spring semester of 1970, when students twice torched the school's ROTC headquarters, Fabbri rose to the defense of a graduate student who'd been among those suspended for fomenting dissent and disobedience on campus. The American Association of University Professors took up the student's cause and got him reinstated, Fabbri recalls. "The chancellor [Thomas Eliot] wrote a letter inviting [the student] back," he says. "He replied: 'Dear Mr. Eliot, Fuck you.'"

Following graduation and two years in labor law, Fabbri joined the St. Louis Public Defender's Office.

"I watched a defendant jump through a two-foot-by-eight-foot window that was closed," Fabbri says of his first day on the job. "He didn't make it." (Meaning he lived.) "They brought him back in, bloody as hell," Fabbri goes on. "The same day I watched this guy who was cuffed, arms and legs, going like this" – he moves his hands as if steering a car – "and saying, 'The burr, the burr.' He was charged for rape and sodomy of at least two women and two young men. I thought: This is going to be something else. And I started a relatively brief but serious drinking episode that night."

In the defender's office, Fabbri rose to the No. 2 rank, with the title Chief Trial Attorney – a position he created for himself after noticing that the city prosecutor's office had done the same. He lasted nearly seven years in the office, thanks in part to hard partying with equally stressed-out friends.

"We were a rat pack," he says with obvious pride. "We had car chases, rammings. We carried dozens of eggs in our trunks and cared not for how long, because you didn't smell them when you threw them."

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