Fleming had never worked on a death penalty case before agreeing to fight for the life of Williams. As a senior member of Williams’ legal team, Fleming said he was never confident in the outcome of their clemency battle. But he was always sure that he was on the right side of the argument and that Williams’ life was worth fighting for.
Williams, the notorious co-founder of the Crips street gang, was passionate about trying to persuade children to avoid making the same mistakes he made. Williams, who was convicted of murdering four people in the 1970s, wrote several children’s books aimed at inner-city kids. Supporters of Williams said he was a changed man after more than two decades on death row.
“Do I regret that he’s not alive today? Surely, I do. But what I really regret and what I think is the great loss here is that he is not alive and, therefore, he is not continuing to talk to these at-risk kids,” Fleming said. “Where I think this country really does default is with kids at risk. And here is a guy who is trying and, I believe, having a substantial impact. The NAACP was going to partner with him, which would have given him substantially more influence. And it makes me very sad for him and for these kids that are gone.”
California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger denied Williams clemency. And Williams’ story focused national and international attention on capital punishment. Fleming said he does not have strong opinions on the issue, but believes that Governor Schwarzenegger’s decision was “shameful” and that Williams’ work was having a positive effect on children.
Fleming—who has been with Curtis, Mallet-Prevost, Colt & Mosle since 1970—said he believes people on both sides of the death penalty issue have valid arguments (the majority of Americans support capital punishment), but that too often the opposing sides demonize each other.
“To my mind, it was all about the kids. I believe he was having an impact,” Fleming said of Williams’ attempt to keep kids out of gangs. “Was he curing it? Of course not. But he was having an impact. That was his passion, and I became increasingly impressed with the purity of his spirit and his passion in trying to get his message out. So to me, why kill him?”
Fleming, who is based in New York, was listed in the December 2005 issue of Corporate Counsel for being selected by Best Lawyers for his work in criminal defense. A Princeton University and Yale Law School graduate, Fleming has handled many high-profile clients throughout his career. He represented flamboyant boxing promoter Don King in the defense of a criminal indictment alleging insurance and wire fraud brought by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, which resulted in a not-guilty verdict. In 1992, Fleming was appointed temporary special independent counsel to Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell and Minority Leader Bob Dole to investigate the unauthorized dissemination of confidential information during the Supreme Court nomination of Clarence Thomas.
Fleming said his practice is a fairly equal balance of criminal and civil cases and, once he started law school, he knew he wanted to become a trial attorney, but perhaps for unique reasons.
“It wasn’t that I thought of the thrill and all the rest of it; it was that I made a relatively quick decision that I didn’t feel significantly confident in myself as a quote unquote lawyer to act as an advisor in the corporate sense,” he said. “I could do it now, but back then I didn’t feel I had the confidence. I said [that] given the chance, I’d rather have the problem after it exists rather than create it or advise on it.”
After law school, Fleming worked for a large firm and then spent eight years as a federal prosecutor when Robert Morgenthau was U.S. Attorney.
Raised near the Jersey Shore, Fleming said he had no interest in law as a young man and actually wanted to be a writer. But his father, influenced by the Depression, had other ideas.
“My dad said, ‘You’re going to be a lawyer.’ So I went to law school,” he said. When asked if his writing skills have helped his legal career, Fleming laughs. “If I had writing skills, my dad would have let me be a writer.”
Fleming, who has five children of his own and lives in Connecticut, said he always advises young attorneys not to feel pressured into joining a big New York or Washington [DC] firm if they don’t want to live in a major city. Attorneys should practice where they want to live, he says.
“The practice of law is national now. There’s no reason—if there ever was—to run to the big cities. I think where you live is such a significant part of your life and, in that sense, such a significant part of your professional life,” he said. “Would a solid practice in a small community be enough for me?”
Would Fleming, who has spent his career with a big New York law firm, do it differently given a second chance? Would he become a country lawyer? Early in his career, he thought he might return to the Jersey Shore to work. But ultimately, he decided practicing in a small community wasn’t enough.