A Conversation with Vincent J. Fuller
(Appeared in Bar Report, February/March 2000)
A 1952 graduate of Williams College and a 1956 graduate of Georgetown University Law Center, Vincent J. Fuller served with the United States Navy from 1952 to 1954. His legal career began in 1956 when he joined Edward Bennett Williams in the law firm known today as Williams & Connolly. Throughout his legal career, Fuller maintained both a criminal defense and a civil practice. His clients have included James Hoffa, Adam Clayton Powell, and John Hinckley Jr. A father of five, he still serves as of counsel to Williams & Connolly-the same firm where he began his career 43 years ago.
Bar Report: Where did you grow up?
Vincent J. Fuller: I was born June 1931 in Ossining, New York. I had an older sister, and my mother mostly raised the children while doing a lot of volunteer work. My father was a lawyer an Ossining, the same place he was born and raised. He put himself through law school at night in the late 1920s.
BR: Was it your father who got you interested in the law?
VJF: Yes, but he died when I was 14. I used go to the court with him a lot because that was his idea of taking care of his babysitting responsibilities. I remember sitting on a small bench in the well of the courtroom where I’d watch him preside in court. I didn’t go all the time, but I went enough so that I have vivid memories. He also advised me not to be a lawyer, but I did it anyway.
BR: Tell us about your schooling.
VJF: I went to public schools in Ossining through the sixth grade. Those classes were small and the teachers were excellent. And then my parents sent me to the Scarborough School, a private school that is located outside of Ossining. I played sports all through high school, and my favorite sport was football. I attempted to play basketball but couldn’t, and I also played baseball. When I graduated from high school, I went to Williams College in Massachusetts on a financial scholarship.
BR: Were you still interested in the law at that point?
VJF: Yes, I don’t think I ever deviated from that interest. I went through a time, as most young people do, where I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I knew I wanted to be a lawyer, but I had no idea what the hell it meant to be a lawyer. I didn’t know what a lawyer did, except what I saw my father do, and that seemed interesting enough. In college I majored in philosophy, mostly out of curiosity. Curiosity drives a lot of the decisions you make when you are young, and if you’re lucky you never lose that. I was 17 when I went off to college in 1948, which is much too young. At that time, most of the colleges were filled with young kids just coming out of military service. I graduated from college in 1952. The Korean War had begun in 1950, and one of my college professors had suggested that I join the naval reserve program. So I enlisted in the navy reserves, and then went on to a naval officer training school in California just outside of San Francisco. I was commissioned in 1952 after I had just turned 21, and I was discharged at 23. Undoubtedly, those were the two most important years of my life.
VJF: In the military you have to be responsible. You don’t have a choice. You have to step up to the plate. It may not seem that great looking back, but at 21 I had never had that type of responsibility. One of my responsibilities was to defend enlisted men that got themselves in trouble with the Navy ship’s captain. Basically I was an untrained defense lawyer for them. I did pretty well, even though I had no formal law training. I didn’t even know what evidence was. When I was discharged in Norfolk, Virginia in 1954, I came to Washington to go to law school at Georgetown. But I didn’t know that was my plan until I was in the Navy. As veterans we all had this mindset that two years in the military was a waste of our time, and that we now had to catch up. We all thought that the contemporaries that didn’t go into the military, but went right into graduate school were ahead of us. Now I realize I was wrong. They weren’t ahead of us at all, in fact, they were probably behind us because they did not have the benefit of military experience. I grew up. I went in at 21 and came out at 40in terms of my attitude.
BR: Why Georgetown?
VJF: I’d applied to three schools and was accepted at all three, but Georgetown was the school I could best afford. Georgetown was the most logical between the $4,000 I had saved, plus the G.I. Bill that covered part of the costs. Georgetown also had an accelerated program for veterans that permitted students to go through law school in two years, plus summer school. It was also during my Georgetown days that I met my wife. She was in the English graduate program while I was at the law school. We met at a social event and married in 1957. My first child was born when I was 29, and I swear that was the first time in my adult life that I whistled. I have always said I was fortunate to have had three daughters first, [before the two boys] because just coming out of the military, I was definitely a male chauvinist. The three girls quickly changed that. Anyway, one of the most impressive teachers that I had in law school was a man named Ed Williams. He taught criminal law, and was outstanding. At the time he had a small law firm, Edward Bennett Williams uptown at 17th,, with only one person working for him, a woman named Agnes Neill, who later became his wife. When I graduated from law school, he offered me a job.
BR: Was it a difficult transition going from law school to working in a law firm?
VJF: Yes, it was shocking. But the navy experience put me at an advantage because I had some experience dealing with people. The best way to describe it is that you go through your life without any professional training, and don’t really know what facts are. It’s only through professional training that you understand what facts are, and how to develop them. Otherwise you have no clue what the law is. Ed Williams was primarily a criminal defense lawyer at that time, and whenever he went to court he would take a young lawyer with him. I was the only young lawyer around, and got to go to court quite early in my career. Sitting through trials with Ed taught me to understand what facts were, how to develop them, and how to present them. During the first four years I went through at least four trials, most of which were controversial. The first was Jimmy Hoffa’s, who was indicted for bribery and obstruction of justice. Ed defended him in June 1957 during a six-week trial, and Hoffa was acquitted. I didn’t do much to help in that trial except draft jury instructions, but it was a highly emotional, highly-contested case. That was around the time that Bobby Kennedy was beginning his campaign against organized crime.
BR: During these trials, did you ever realize you were witnessing history in the making?
VJF: I don’t think you know that when you’re in the middle of it. What I did realize though was the importance of developing a theory of the case, and presenting certain facts consistent with that theory. On top of that, I learned the importance of timing. For example, the day of the week is very important. If the jury went home on a Friday, you wanted to leave them with a significant piece of evidence. Today that’s obvious, but when you’re untrained, it’s something you don’t think about.
BR: What other cases stand out in your mind from those early days?
VJF: Ed and I defended Adam Clayton Powell. During the Eisenhower administration in 1958, Powell was a U.S. congressman from Harlem, New York, who was indicted for tax evasion. It was a sensitive case that had gone before the grand jury several years before Powell was indicted. I remember a series of articles in the National Review, a conservative publication that appeared to be out to get Powell. It had several stories about the inaction of the grand jury in the southern district of New York, and copies of the magazine were sent to grand jurors so they wouldn’t miss the point. I spent a long time analyzing the evidence on that case. Powell had been married to Hazel Scott, a prominent, successful African-American pianist. In the early 1950s Scott was on tour in Europe and North Africa, where she was much more popular than in the United States. Scott was paid for each performance in the currency of the country in which she performed. Back then the international currency situation was unstable and many European countries had blocked currencies. For example, if paid in Israeli pounds, she was unable to take the money out of the country with her. On the tour Scott had an income of more than $50,000, but it was all blocked. When Powell was indicted the couple had filed joint returns. He decided not to report the income from the European tours because it was blocked. Still the government indicted Powell for the 1950-51 tax returns stating that he failed to include income that had been paid to Scott, even though the money was never received. I developed the facts during this trial because I knew what facts were, and I knew what I was doing. I was a real lawyer.
BR: Was that your first case alone?
VJF: No. There was a time when members of the Bar in the District who were actively engaged in courtroom work were required to contribute a percentage of their time to pro bono. That was my first case. I had to defend a young man who had been dishonorably discharged from the army. He came to the District and was accused of breaking into several houses and raping several women. I don’t even think the kid was 18. I sought to get him out on bail, and the prosecutor objected and announced he was "looking for the death penalty in this case." That bowled me over. The death penalty? It was my first trial. By this point I knew how to present an argument to a jury, and I think I surprised everyone because my client was unable to help me. He had gotten very drunk and had no recollection of what he had been doing on that particular evening. That meant I had no facts. The man had a brother around the same age that he went carousing with that night. The brother also had no recollection of the evening and could not account for himself. As a consequence, reasonable doubt existed because it could not be determined which of the two had committed the criminal act. My client was acquitted. When you’re in that situation, court-appointed or not, you have to isolate your thinking. You can’t get emotional over the man or woman you are defending.
BR: You also defended John Hinckley Jr.?
VJF: Yes, I was the principal defense lawyer for that case in 1982. John Hinckley was charged with the shooting of President Reagan in 1981. A classmate of mine from law school had represented Hinckley’s father in his business in Colorado, and he recommended me. One thing I remember clearly about the case was that I had to get clearance from the members on our firm’s transition team. At that time, the Reagan administration was in transition and a number of lawyers in my office were members of the transition team. We had to check whether or not there would be a conflict of interest if I represented Hinckley Jr. And I remember Ed Williams saying, "Absolutely not, that’s what we’re all about."
BR: What sticks out in your mind about that case?
VJF: I had been involved in an insanity case in the past, but I had never worked with this type of person before. Hinckley was insane, that’s for sure, and he was very difficult to deal with because of his mixed up view of himself and the world. It was challenging because it was so bizarre. The man tried to assassinate the president of the United States and said he did it for the love of actress Jodi Foster. I interviewed Foster in 1981 when she was still disturbed by what had happened. We decided it was best to tape her deposition out of fear that if we called her as a witness, Hinckley would freak out in the courtroom. He did that anyway. But what always got me about that case was that no one in his family had any idea as to how sick he was. His parents knew that something might be wrong with him, so they sent him to a psychologist, who sent him to a psychiatrist. Hinckley only saw the psychiatrist a few times, but from those interviews the psychiatrist failed to get a clue as to what was going on in his mind. That’s alarming.
BR: After handling a national case like that, did your perception of the law change?
VJF: I’d handled other famous cases. One of the greatest things about trial law is that I’ve been on an unending learning curve. As I’ve moved from case to case, every subject matter and every personality has been different. In the law, there is this incredibly changing environment in which you’re working. You change and the political system changes-it’s always evolving. As a lawyer you are in the middle of this evolving process, not just as a witness, but as a participant in the evolution of the law. It’s thrilling. So yes my perception has changed but that was not unique to the Hinckley case, it was part of something bigger.
BR: You have also handled a lot of tax cases?
VJF: Oh, I liked tax cases. Don King, the boxing promoter, was a tax case. Both Powell and King were tax cases that were flawed because they were developed on incomplete facts, and not by revenue authorities experienced in criminal prosecutions. Don King had professional help. He had a lawyer and an accountant who were running his business. He had a multimillion-dollar business, and was reporting an income of $30 to $40 million in gross receipts. He was indicted for failing to report hundreds of thousands of dollars during those years, money that the professional help did not know about. What was critical was that the professionals didn’t know, and they should have known. If they had pursued the facts available to them they would have known what the income was. King had all these fight promotions and every event had its own contract with a promoter and a venue where the fight was promoted. The contracts with the venue provided the compensation be paid to the promoter and sometimes to the fighter, yet the accountant doing the bookwork never got those contracts. He never sought them, and as a result, he never knew what the income was. King would give some of the checks to the accountant, and some he cashed at the window of the venue because there was a gambling casino there. When someone is making $30 to $40 million a year, how can all of that be traced? The accounting system was no good, and that’s what led to the problem.
BR: The defense of Don King led to your defense of Mike Tyson?
VJF: Yes, King was Tyson’s promoter. I was working on a civil case for Tyson that was then pending in the southern district of New York. The rape case against Tyson was developed in 1991, and King asked me to take it over. It was in Indiana, and to tell you the truth, I would have liked to have found an Indiana lawyer to turn it over to. But I couldn’t find one that was acceptable for King or Tyson.
BR: How would you describe Mike Tyson?
VJF: He was in a world that was foreign to me, a world that had no control. A world where you did whatever you wanted to do to make yourself feel good. That world doesn’t exist, and I felt sorry for him because he was a victim of the society that surrounded him. For example as a young boy he was taken out of reform school and placed in the hands of Cus D’Amato, a very respectable trainer who made him into the fierce fighter that he became. I think boxers need someone to manage their lives as well as their purses. The person to manage Tyson was personally selected by King, and unfortunately he picked a bad person for that authority role. Tyson needs a manager to control him, and when he doesn’t have that, he gets into trouble. In the 1980s, Tyson was a sports hero. I don’t know how many consecutive knockouts he had, but it was quite a record. He was on top of his game when the rape charge hit. I have to confess I had some problem with the idea that he committed the rape, despite the fact that he was convicted and sent to jail for three years. The girl was 18 and had been on the beauty pageant circuit for quite some time, and as a result she appeared to be sophisticated and beyond her years. I could never get square in my mind how it could be rape when this young woman, at Tyson’s invitation, went to his hotel room with him and engaged in some type of sexual activity. But it is my opinion that a very hostile community convicted him of rape, and the press condemned him without knowing any of the facts.
BR: During your career, does one case stand out as the toughest or most unforgettable?
VJF: I don’t think so. Once you adopt a way of conducting your business as a trial lawyer everything falls into place. The cases are different, but the modus operandi is the same. For example, one has to know how to deal with people, witnesses, clients, jurors, and once he has that down, procedurally everything else follows a pattern. But not substantively, which is what makes the challenge so interesting. I have represented some extraordinarily interesting people, but to select one case that stands out, I don’t know that I can do that. You must also understand that in defending sometimes controversial or notorious figures, our law firm was not condoning the conduct of those accused. But it was our responsibility to provide them adequate defense as mandated by the sixth amendment to the Constitution.
BR: Who has inspired you?
VJF: Ed Williams had the most influence on my legal career. When I was in law school, the practice of criminal law was unpopular. The quality of the criminal defense bar was mediocre at best. But Ed was in the process of changing that. He was making a respectable profession out of being a criminal defense lawyer. Today there are many former prosecutors practicing criminal law. As I mentioned earlier, my dad had the original influence because he told me not to do it. But he was a civil lawyer, he worked on trusts, estates, and wills. That’s probably why he told me not to do it-because it was all so boring.
BR: Are any of your children lawyers?
VJF: Three of them are, although one of my daughters recently gave it up to become a full-time mother. I would encourage young people to pursue careers in the law if they could have the kind of life that I had, but I don’t know if that life is available any longer. The practice of law has changed dramatically. The people who came along in my generation had an opportunity, one that I don’t think is there anymore.
BR: Can you explain what you mean by that?
VJF: When I started practicing law we didn’t have billable hours. Instead we had assigned tasks. As a lawyer it was your responsibility to get the job done whether it took an hour, a day, or a week. You didn’t mind it because the tasks were challenging, and you were always on a learning curve. Now that’s all changed. It began to change at Williams & Connolly in the 1970s when we started to grow in size. Today we have more than 100 lawyers and a support staff approaching 300. When I was a young lawyer I couldn’t wait to get to work because there were so many tasks on my agenda, and each one was fascinating. I don’t see that same kind of enthusiasm today. There are some lawyers that I don’t doubt choose this profession for no other reason than the money. I recently read in The New York Times that the starting salary for a Wall Street lawyer is $150,000. You know what I was paid? $4,800-and that was good pay!
BR: Other than law, what are some of your other interests?
VJF: I love history, and spend a lot of time reading history. Right now I’m studying the Greek-Roman period. I’m still inquisitive and I’m still delighted to learn new things. If you can go through life always on a learning curve, then you will have a very pleasant, rewarding life. Not necessarily financial rewards, but rewards that will make you want to live and learn more.
BR: If you could do it over would you do anything differently?
VJF: I’ve thought about that quite a lot, but honestly I can’t imagine doing anything that would have been as much fun, or that would have brought me the pleasure and challenges as these years have.