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Criminal defense lawyer fights for the 'underdog'

By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

A newspaper photo with the headline "Not Guilty" hangs on attorney Neil Rockind's office wall. It is a photo of a township clerk charged along with three others including two county commissioners with perjury and obstruction of justice. A special prosecutor was appointed to handle the case.

"My client, a decent man in whose innocence I truly believed, broke down in tears and fell into my arms when he was acquitted," Rockind recalls. "The picture of him hugging me, below the caption 'Not Guilty,' hangs on my wall to this day as a reminder of how the government can come so close to destroying a life and how important my job of defending my clients truly is."

This was just one of many fascinating cases handled by Rockind, who started his own criminal defense firm in Southfield 14 years ago. He has always identified with the underdog.

"There is no greater underdog than a citizen accused by the government, be it state or federal the power of the government to alter someone's life and liberty is awesome," he notes. "Few people have the mettle, stomach and skill to withstand all of the government's resources and power in defense of a citizen."

While all criminal defense cases are daunting, some pose a huge challenge, factually or logistically, he notes.

In one such case some years ago, Rockind defended Jimmie Nelson, accused of some 15 counts of capital perjury and obstruction of justice in a 20-year-old missing person cold case. Local, county and federal agents participated in the investigation.

"Over time, witnesses changed stories, changed descriptions of who and what they saw and some passed away," Rockind says. "Attempting to construct a defense after a 20-year gap like that was incredibly challenging. No one should have to defend against a case under those circumstances citizens deserve better."

In an Oakland County case, Rockind defended Hans Georg-Hofe who shot and killed a young police officer, Jessica Wilson.

"I felt just how awesome the government's powers and abilities are in that case - they pulled out every resource and stop to prosecute Hofe," he says. "Every day I'd walk into court and face the scores of supporters for the prosecution and felt like if it weren't for me, he'd be torn to pieces by the mob."

Another case involved an older man accused of conspiring to participate in the delivery and sale of over 1,000 kilograms of cocaine. The client, one of several co-defendants, was Albanian and did not speak English; and during the trial, wore headphones as an interpreter interpreted the entire proceedings to him in real-time reminiscent of the "Nuremberg Trials" or "International Criminal Court" proceedings.

"Despite the circus-like atmosphere, I was able to paint the image of my client as an immigrant who came to this country to make a better life for his children, which the jury must have accepted because they acquitted him of all charges he was facing life in prison if convicted," Rockind says.

In a recent case, his team caught an entire police narcotics unit in a lie.

"An investigator claimed to have found drugs in a drawer of a nightstand that did not exist. The unit refused to take photographs documenting where the guns and drugs were purportedly found which I found suspicious; the claimed location of the guns and drugs was too."

After the acquittal, the client did something Rockind had never seen anyone do in court in his 21-year career.

"He leapt for joy after the verdict and sprinted down the street," he says. "I imagine he had so much energy he could have run a marathon right then and there!"

Rockind has lately developed a deeper understanding of confession and interrogation evidence, and over the last year, he and his office colleagues have focused on learning the various interrogation methods and how these interrogation tactics result in unreliable or false confessions.

"I love the science involved and intend to do my part to expose false confessions in the courtroom," he says. "There is no case harder to win than one with a confession, but I'm up to the challenge and say, 'Bring it on!'"

Rockind, who has lectured to lawyers, police officers and citizens regarding current issues in law, was destined for the law from a young age.

"For as long as I can remember, everyone close to me said that I was going to be a lawyer," he says. "Why? I could flat out argue. I loved communicating. I thrived on it. So, it was my destiny to be a trial lawyer."

After graduating from Bloomfield Hills Andover High School and earning his undergrad degree in general studies from the University of Michigan, Rockind earned his juris doctor from Wayne State University Law School, then spent four years as an assistant prosecuting attorney in the Oakland County Prosecutor's Office. He handled thousands of criminal cases, many of which resulted in jury trials gaining the moniker "the Rockweiler" due to his record and ferocity.

As a special prosecutor, he handled complex and high profile cases including the prosecution of famed assisted suicide advocate Jack Kevorkian, a.k.a. "Dr. Death"; People v. Horton, the prosecution of a pastor charged with taking clandestine videotapes of his parishioners in the bathrooms of his church; and People v Mayhew, a groundbreaking vehicular homicide case. He also prosecuted many high-level drug dealers, including one of the few cases resulting from an Oakland County Citizens' Grand Jury indictment.

Despite this stellar success, Rockind realized he belonged on "the other side" of the courtroom in defense of the accused rather than as the prosecutor.

"I loved the experience and camaraderie in the Prosecutor's Office," he says. "I worked with some terrific people, received tremendous courtroom experience and it was the springboard to my chosen field, criminal defense. My transition was seamless and I've never looked back."

Since starting in private practice, Rockind has represented clients in matters ranging from drunk driving to complex federal cases, and notorious cases such as the infamous Pistons v. Pacers "Basketbrawl" assault case, in which he obtained the only dismissal; and the investigation into noted attorney Geoffrey Fieger.

Frequently seen on TV or quoted in the press, and named to Michigan Superlawyers, DBusiness Top Lawyers, and Best of Detroit, Rockind can remember family and friends predicting a legal career as far back as childhood.

"Why? I could flat out argue," he says. "I loved communicating. I thrived on it. So, it was my destiny to be a trial lawyer."

The grandson of Holocaust survivors, Rockind is profoundly influenced by his family legacy.

"My grandparents' struggle and survival defines my family and me," he says. "I didn't grow up wealthy but we didn't lack for anything."

Immensely proud of his Jewish heritage, he is an ardent supporter of Israel, where he and his wife of 16 years spent their honeymoon. He serves on the Regional Advisory Board of the Anti Defamation League and on the Board of Directors for the Friends of the Israeli Defense Force Michigan Chapter.

In his leisure time, the father of three is an avid reader.

"Believe it or not, I love reading stories about great lawyers and cases it inspires me," he says.

The Detroit native is also a big fan of Michigan football "although that has been a labor of love the last few years," he says. "Regardless, I bleed maize and blue and look forward to the day when my alma mater is competitive on the field once again although I pray this happens sooner rather than later."

He may even have a new profession in the wings should he ever give up the law or want to add a new string to his bow.

"I announce my son's football games," he says. "The professional sports organizations should consider hiring me to announce their games, I'm that good at it really!"

Published: Tue, Jan 06, 2015