This is a carousel. Use Next and Previous buttons to navigate
NEW HAVEN — When Norm Pattis told jurors at the close of the Sandy Hook defamation trial in Waterbury that there was no place he’d rather be than before them defending Alex Jones, Pattis meant it — even if Jones himself was boycotting the case 1,800 miles away in Texas.
Pattis might have clarified what he meant by sharing with jurors the truth underlying Pattis’ 30-year career as a criminal defense lawyer — that by zealously defending a man so widely reviled as Jones, Pattis found healing for the pain that has been with Pattis since he was a first grader.
“I was scorned, and when my mother was shopping around with other men, I was an unwelcome presence in my own home — I know what that’s like,” Pattis said during an interview in his Orange Street office last week. “I know what it’s like to walk into a room and be hated for who you are, and somehow it’s important to me to stand next to that person — and there is nothing I would rather do than that.”
But there was another truth bubbling beneath Pattis’ closing argument to the jury that wound up delivering a $965 million judgment against Jones for eight Sandy Hook families and an FBI agent Jones defamed. The livestreamed four-week trial was so stressful and anxiety-ridden for Pattis and his wife that it bought him to a crossroads — where he must decide whether he’ll continue to delight in high-profile trial fights or live a family life in Vermont of reading, writing and perhaps broadcasting.
For one of Connecticut’s most prominent criminal defense attorneys after losing one of the highest profile lawsuits of its kind in the country, Pattis finds himself not only at a crossroads but at place of gratitude in the midst of trial.
“I feel like I am one of the luckiest guys alive because these controversies keep coming to me,” Pattis says in the spirit of Yankee captain Lou Gehrig’s 1939 speech. “After the Jones case we got inquiries from folks who are as prominent as Jones who have problems of their own and so the question is do I go on to the next one, or do I stop?”
The short answer is that Pattis goes on. In December he’ll go to trial to represent Joseph Biggs, a member of the Proud Boys group, who’s charged with seditious conspiracy in the 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. — a case Pattis calls “another front row seat in a train wreck.”
But how long Pattis goes on as Connecticut’s premier “defender of the despised” he no longer can say.
“At some point some part of me says, ‘How much is enough?’” Pattis says. “I love being in court. I love a fight — it’s infinitely engaging. Am I burned out? I am more cynical than I used to be. I have heard it all before.”
As he speaks, the mid-morning sun comes through the window of Pattis’ first floor conference room, lined from floor to ceiling with books.
“I’ve been approached to potentially represent an unrecognized Indian tribe that is of great interest to me because it will steep me in regional history and that will keep me interested because there is no drug like the learning curve, right?”
“I don’t know if I’m burned out,” he says.
“I don’t know. I don’t know.”
Life, death and jury
For Pattis, who stands at the proverbial wood where two roads diverge, it’s a time in his life when everything is on the table — each making its own claim on him. There’s the wish of his three kids for him to be a full-time father and grandfather, and his own wishes to start the dialogue that will keep the country from dividing into the riots of his youth. There’s the progress he’s making in psychotherapy to treat childhood pain and the restorative experience of advocating for the most maligned clients he can find. There’s the interest of his wife for him to step aside from the confrontations and controversies that drive headlines, and his own interests to be in the fight on the big stage — the bigger the better.
There’s his lifelong search for God who is “ever-present but always just out of view.”
“There are those who say philosophy is learning how to die,” said Pattis, who taught at Columbia University before graduating from UConn Law School, and going to work for civil rights attorney John Williams. “The other night I had indigestion and I thought, ‘This is a heart attack.’ And I said, “If this is it, I’m good with it,’ you know? I don’t expect to live forever.”
How Pattis got to this point of no return is via the Alex Jones trial — a four-year case made difficult because of the quality of opposing lawyers, because of the constraints imposed by the judge when Jones abused the pretrial process, and because of Jones himself, who Pattis calls “uniquely demanding.”
Jones has fired Pattis twice and rehired him three times so far.
To explain why Pattis agreed to represent a man who called the 2012 massacre of 26 first graders and educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School “staged,” “synthetic,” “manufactured,” “a giant hoax,” and “completely fake with actors” requires going back in Pattis’ life, past the 1967 riots in Detroit, to when Pattis himself was 6 or 7 in Chicago.
“My primary experience in childhood is of having been abandoned by my father who left us and my mother fell apart so basically I raised myself,” Pattis said. “I know what terror is and I know what fear is and I know what it is to cry a lonely tear — and somehow the cases that I am drawn to have something to do with that.”
“I meant what I said in the Jones case when I said to the jury, ‘There’s no place in the world I would rather be than right here right now on behalf of Alex Jones,’” Pattis said. “Somehow that repairs some damage in me.”
As a preteen in Detroit, Pattis watched the city burn during the deadly civil rights riots in 1967.
“We were shuffled off to a summer camp to get us out of harm’s way — the kids in my neighborhood were all white and we were adjacent to a Black neighborhood — they didn’t send the Black kids out; they only saved the white ones,” Pattis said. “And it struck me that if I were a person of color, I would have burned down the city too.”
‘I don’t know’
It was in the courtroom that Pattis was inspired by the revolutionary power of jurors to check government overreach, and in the courtroom where Pattis found a criminal justice system he wanted to fight.
“I think we kid ourselves when we say that the criminal justice system imparts justice. What it does is solves social problem. It removes the danger from society and gives the self-righteous the satisfaction of thinking that they are going to be safe,” Pattis says. “I think our criminal justice system is an obscene and self-righteous joke. And the ability to dismantle it with the jury is very appealing to me.”
In the end what set Pattis on his destiny was love.
“Love has redeemed me,” Pattis said. “My wife is the greatest gift I was ever given. I remember meeting her and thinking she’s too good to be true —nobody can be this kind, this nice, this loving. Well, she is.”
As a result of the Jones trial, Pattis and his wife have been under the strain of “extremely stressful” public scorn, hate mail and unfriendly interactions with the public, Pattis said.
“She just hates this case and hates my involvement in it,” Pattis says. “I think she would like me to be involved in something less controversial.”
It wasn’t always like that for one of Connecticut’s most contentious criminal defense lawyers, who got his start suing police officers on behalf of young men of color.
“I think it was easier for my wife to see me attacking the power on behalf of a historically disadvantaged minority than it is now to see me representing people accused of being white supremacists, but I think from my perspective it is the same,” Pattis said. “I always think the most dangerous thing on earth is a self-righteous mob, and the woke terrify me as much as cops used to. So I will stand with someone like Alex or Joe Biggs any day of the week…the world changed. I don’t think I did.”
As a result, Pattis has a choice to make.
“I have lived a good life. I have been far more successful than I’ve had any reason to expect. I enjoy things. I have the love of a good woman. I have great kids. I don’t know how much is enough,” Pattis says.
“I don’t know. I don’t know.”
Reach Rob Ryser at firstname.lastname@example.org or 203-731-3342
Rob Ryser is a reporter with the News-Times. Rob is a career journalist with a rare flair for storytelling. He specializes in City Hall coverage and general assignment features.