Michigan attorney takes on notorious sex cases
By EMILY LAWLER
Nov. 13, 2017
BLOOMFIELD HILLS, Mich. (AP) — Michigan attorney Shannon Smith only defends people accused of Michigan's most serious sex crimes. That's on purpose.
"I like the stakes being high," Smith said in a September interview at her office in Bloomfield Hills, surrounded by pictures of her husband and four children.
She turns away 90 percent to 95 percent of people who seek her help, and typically only takes on cases where the charges come with a sentence of life in prison.
Right now her short list of clients includes Dr. Larry Nassar, the ex-Michigan State University doctor facing charges related to his alleged sexual assault of nine young women; Josh King, the ex-MSU football player facing sexual assault charges stemming from a Jan. 16 incident at a campus party; and Dr. Jumana Nagarwala, the Detroit-area doctor accused of female genital mutilation.
She declined to talk about individual cases — "None of my clients want to be in the news," she said — but sat down with MLive for an interview about her overall practice.
Smith is a self-described feminist and alpha female. She projects confidence and decisiveness. And by doing this job, she's developed one of the thickest skins in the business.
"I get pushback from everyone. I constantly have people ask me 'how do you do those cases' or 'Shannon, you have four small children, how can you do those cases?'" she said.
When Smith was a child herself, she was bullied for a series of perceived infractions — being too academic, having acne and, as she puts it, being "really uncool."
"By doing these cases, I've realized that a lot of my clients feel the same way I did, just with the bullying," Smith said. "The government has enormous resources, enormous power, unlimited funds to do whatever they want in pursuit of what they believe. I love the part of this practice that lets me help my clients escape a system that can very much be a bully."
Smith didn't always want to be a lawyer, and she definitely didn't always want to be a lawyer who specialized in sex crimes.
She was on a scientific track in college at the University of Michigan until she got in a car accident and her passenger, a friend, sued. Once she was thrown in to the legal process, "I was fascinated. And I realized that I just loved the legal profession," Smith said.
She graduated from Michigan State University College of Law and started in family law, and handled divorces until she got a fax about a client leaving urine on a toilet seat and realized she wanted out. She asked to work some cases with Gail Benson, an attorney who specialized in defending clients accused of sex crimes. This, she decided, was the line of work for her.
She's interested in the psychology behind false allegations, and tries to put herself in the shoes of people on the other side of the case — the child believing what they've been told, or the teenager with a reason to deflect attention or the parent reacting to information they're presented with.
Both in the courtroom and in her office, Smith is warm and almost bubbly, right up until she gets serious and pointed. She's conversational with the alleged victims she's questioning, but when she's through she's made her point.
Attorney James Burdick of Burdick Law PC in Bloomfield Township got to know Smith through her mentor, Benson. He gained respect for her by seeing her work in the courtroom. There are a lot of really good lawyers, he said, but the pool of great trial attorneys is much smaller and Smith is among them.
"She connects with the jurors. They know she's being completely honest and straightforward. And you know, if a jury thinks that a lawyer is not being straightforward with them it almost doesn't matter what arguments they're making, they're not going to buy it," Burdick said.
He calls her a "force of nature" in the courtroom. Burdick's practice focuses on federal criminal defense, and when he gets state-level criminal sexual conduct cases he refers people to Smith.
Her job is serious, and she's serious about it. She doesn't have hobbies outside of her family and her work. She doesn't pick up her office phone when it rings, preferring to let most of the comments about what people want to do to her over a case go to voicemail. She's recently stepped up security at her office.
When she does vet new clients — and she usually has a pro-bono case going along with her regular caseload — she's choosy.
"I'm very blunt and very honest with people. And there have been clients that have sat down with me and I've said what you are telling me is not believable. I don't believe you, and if I don't believe you I can't sell this story to a jury," Smith said.
But when she believes in somebody, she believes in them. Out of respect to those she represents, she doesn't blog about the cases she wins or even display photos or newspaper clippings in her office lobby. Her clients have her cell phone number, and she's happy to pick up.
Her caffeine of choice is Diet Coke, and she has an office supply to get her through long work days. And she's not afraid to get out of the office to better help the people she's representing.
Burdick said a lot of attorneys don't like spending time in jail with their clients, but Smith is there all the time.
"She focuses on them like she's focusing on a loved one," Burdick said.
Aside from talking with clients, Smith picks up her phone for other attorneys who ask for advice on the types of cases she specializes in.
"I tell lawyers, if you want to pick my brain, just do it on a time I'm driving," she said.
Often that's between 5 a.m. and 8 a.m. as she heads to hearings across the state. She puts about 30,000 miles per year on "super lawyer" car — an Infiniti Q60S sports car with a cherry red interior. Her weekend "super mom" car is a Ford Flex sporting four car seats for her children.
While her caseload is relatively small, she's always getting engrossed in new ones. Recently she picked up the case of Mohammad Altantawi, the Farmington Hills teen accused of murdering his mother by pushing her out a window; and the case of Ronald DiMambro, a man going through a retrial after being convicted of first degree murder in the death of his girlfriend's two-year-old.
And when she catches criticism from other people, even other attorneys, she turns it around into something she can learn from.
"Earlier in my career I think I used to fight against people a lot and try to defend myself," Smith said. "And I've learned that it's almost a gift when people give me a hard time, because I know what they're thinking and I know what my jurors will think."
That turnaround isn't an unusual for her. Cases can "take over my brain," she said, and she's not great at compartmentalizing. But on some level, the all-consuming nature of her job is something she loves about it.
"I will never stop doing this work," Smith said. "I was meant to do this and I love it. I really love it."
Information from: The Grand Rapids Press:MLive.com, http://www.mlive.com