Little Rock defense attorney is taking pride in acquittals
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — North Little Rock attorney Nicki Nicolo is getting accustomed to hearing words rarely uttered in a federal courthouse: not guilty.
That was the verdict from a jury Dec. 18 in a case involving a former juvenile correctional officer, and it was the second acquittal for Nicolo’s clients in U.S. District Court in Little Rock in less than a year.
Federal prosecutors rarely lose a jury trial. For the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, 2017, the latest figures available, there were 75,163 defendants in U.S. District Courts across the country, and 92 percent of them were convicted. Only 196 defendants were acquitted in a jury trial during that period.
Nicolo, who also practices family law, is a Criminal Justice Act Panel attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas and is appointed to defendants who can’t afford an attorney.
CJA attorneys recently got a raise from $136 an hour to $146, with a cap of $10,000, Nicolo said. “You’re still doing it at a reduced rate,” she said to Arkansas Business. “I work the cases regardless. That is just my nature.”
Growing up in southwest Little Rock, Nicolo said, she knew from a young age that she wanted to be an attorney. Her father died when she was 6 and her mother was a real estate agent.
“I knew attorneys, and I knew who (high-profile Little Rock defense attorney) Sam Perroni was,” she said in her North Little Rock office. “I wanted to emulate my life after them.”
She thought she would work on freeing innocent people from death row.
But while studying at the Bowen School of Law at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Nicolo took a white-collar crime class, which was taught by Perroni.
She was hooked. He asked her to be his law clerk, a position she accepted, and she assisted him with his criminal cases.
“I found it fascinating, and I was like, this is what I want to do,” Nicolo said.
In 2017, Nicolo was appointed to represent Thomas Farris, a correction officer facing one count of conspiring to violate the civil rights of juveniles held at the White River Juvenile Detention Center and one count of willfully violating the civil rights of juveniles. He was tried with another defendant, who was represented by another firm, and both were found not guilty after a seven-day trial.
Farris “is a hard-working guy, supporting his family, who couldn’t hurt a fly,” she said.
She also represented Darris Denton, who was charged in 2016 in connection with an armed jewelry store robbery in Little Rock. He was facing nearly 50 years in federal prison and if convicted would have served “a lot of time,” Nicolo said.
But there was no evidence connecting him to the crime other than the word of the robbers who had been convicted. Denton was found not guilty on three counts in March 2018.
“Getting an outright jury acquittal in any federal criminal case is certainly an achievement,” said Perroni, who advises Nicolo about cases and is listed of counsel in her practice. “But getting two in such a short period of time is rarely heard of. Particularly when she simply didn’t have the resources that I might have had as a criminal defense attorney in my cases.”
To prepare for trial, Nicolo said, she spends hours combing through the evidence in the case. And in court, she relies on Perroni’s 1970s easel to display evidence while federal prosecutors are “using all their fancy stuff, the jury sees you doing all of that. Every little thing like that matters.”
She hopes one day to be appointed as a federal judge. “It’s just another aspect of being involved in the system, seeing it from the judge’s perspective and deciding cases,” she said.
In the meantime, she has about 15 federal cases she’s working on and some of those defendants might not take a plea. If they don’t, then “we’re right back in the grind, which I love,” Nicolo said.
Information from: Arkansas Business, http://www.arkansasbusiness.com