Steve Farese Sr. walks back to the podium after approaching witness Katie Godfrey during Monday’s opening day of the Brian Holliman murder trial at the Oktibbeha County Courthouse in Starkville. Godfrey, sister of the deceased, Laura Lee Holliman, was the state’s first witness. Photo by: Micah Green/Dispatch Staff
August 13, 2013 10:17:25 AM
EDITOR'S NOTE: The following profile of attorney Steve Farese, the defense counsel in the Brian Holliman murder case being tried in Starkville this week, appeared in the Daily Mississippian, the student newspaper at the University of Mississippi, on Nov. 27, 2006. It was written by Dispatch news editor William Browning, who was then a student at the university. Some of the material in the story has been updated.
He's "Bad to the Bone," if the George Thorogood riff on his cell phone is any indication, and he'll get you an acquittal judging by eight framed headlines on the wall in his waiting room, a few of which read: "Mullins acquitted of killing wife"
"Senator's son, friend cleared in sex charges"
"Tigers' Wade cleared"
"Dill not guilty of aggravated DUI charges"
Steven Farese Sr. is not exactly your father's Atticus Finch.
Instead of Harper Lee's illustration of Finch in "To Kill A Mockingbird," this small-town lawyer (Ashland, population 569) is known for the high profile clients he defends and the demeanor he uses in the courtroom. He's calm, cool, somewhat eccentric and often sporting a smirk that suggests he is in on a joke to which you aren't privy.
The Godfather of Benton County
A trim, 6-foot-2 inches, Farese is now in his mid-60s. Sometimes there is a fat, unlit cigar dangling from his mouth. When talking, he might not remove neither the cigar or the smirk.
Behind his desk sits a framed portrait of Al Pacino as Michael Corleone.
"A gift from my sister," Farese explains. "She calls me 'the Godfather.'"
He reclines confidently in his chair, feet propped on the desk. Open, at ease and amiable, with his eyes peering out from behind a minute set of spectacles, he talks across a four-inch statue of the magician Merlin perched at the front of his desk.
"Another gift, from a former client," Farese says. "He said I could see the future."
It may seem surprising how receptive Farese is to the media.
"Well, you've got to remember, he's a criminal defense attorney. He wants the press on his side, he wants to use the press to his advantage," said Gene Ladnier, editor of Ashland's weekly paper, The Southern Advocate.
Despite attention from Vanity Fair, CNN, "20/20," Nancy Grace, Larry King, "Good Morning America" and A&E's "City Confidential," Farese says it's easy to be sucked in by the media's attention, but he knows "not to let it go to my head."
Defending Mary Winkler -- the Tennessee woman who was charged in the death of her husband -- has even drawn Dr. Phil and Oprah Winfrey to call upon the lawyer, but Farese declined appearances on both shows.
"You realize early on that they don't care about you," he said of the media attention. "So you enjoy it while it's there, take it as it is, and then forget about it when it's over."
The offices of Farese, Farese and Farese, P.A. -- which give the small town its only hint of genteel air by way of the weathered gray brick that make up the structure -- take up nearly the entire south side of Ashland's square.
The Benton County Courthouse there doesn't "sag into the square" as Lee's Maycomb Courthouse was described. Instead, it sort of crumbles. Some of the second-story windowpanes are broken while a rusted Hitachi front-end loader sits on the lawn.
It has been "at least 15 years" since Farese has argued to a Benton County jury. There are bigger fish to fry.
"We've talked about moving our offices (out of Ashland) every five years or so since I've been here," Farese said. "But we feel like if we keep on doing good work, people will keep finding us."
a defense tool
During a speaking engagement at the University of Mississippi Law School, he told the audience money is definitely a factor when he takes a case unless the client in question has "raped an orphanage."
The law school talk was on the subject of legal research, which Farese -- listed for more than 10 years in Woodward & White's "Best Lawyers in America" publication -- cites as one of the two most important aspects of practicing law successfully.
"Look, I'm not patting myself on the back here. I meet other lawyers every day who are smarter than me, but you will not out-work me when it comes to research," Farese said.
He says the other component of success lies in the ability to conduct courtroom humor.
"I've found good lawyers tell good jokes," he said. "Whether telling jokes or standing in the courtroom, you need a good sense of timing and a good understanding of your material. You've got to draw your audience in. In the courtroom, you better have a punch line."
To illustrate the point, Farese referenced the Dustin Dill trial.
Defending Dill, a former University of Mississippi student who had been charged with aggravated DUI in the death of Amie Ewing, Farese stressed from the beginning of the trial to the end that his client's blood alcohol concentration was not responsible for Ewing's death. The prosecution spent the trial attempting to prove otherwise.
So when Farese ended his closing argument, he made way for the prosecution's closing by turning to the district attorney and saying, "Last call, for alcohol."
Dill was found not guilty.
Good research, good punch lines and the ability to make good payments, it seems, lead to favorable headlines for Farese's clients.
Farese's first murder case was six months after he graduated from the University of Mississippi Law School in 1977. His client then, in February 1978, was found not guilty. Since then, he has defended "at least 100" people charged with murder. Farese's success rate is a bit more debatable.
"You've got to remember, there are lies, then damn lies, and then there are statistics," he said in response to the question. "Now I don't believe that statistics can give an accurate illustration of this because every single case is different. But, my success rate? About 85 percent."
A change of courts
Farese has homes in Germantown, Tenn., Holly Springs and Ashland. When driving to work from the home in Holly Springs, Farese does so on the John B. Farese Memorial Highway, named in honor of his late father.
The elder Farese, formerly of Massachusetts, opened the firm in 1939 after coming to Mississippi to play junior college football. He passed away in 1994, and today the family is littered with lawyers, six of whom work for Farese, Farese and Farese, P.A.
But despite the family heritage, Farese says he did not originally plan on practicing law.
"I was going to be a professional athlete," he said.
The St. Louis Cardinals offered him a contract out of high school, but that dream was squashed after a scout told Farese, a pitcher, he did not have a "big league" fastball. Then, while an undergraduate at Ole Miss, Farese played point guard for the Rebel basketball team, twice facing Louisiana State University's Pete Maravich on the hardwood.
"I was all set to be a professional basketball player until I ran into a guy who played for LSU," Farese said. "'Pistol' Pete helped change my mind for me. We beat them both times we played them, but after seeing him play, law school started looking a whole lot better to me."
He worked in his father's law office while in law school, a time he likens now to a construction firm owner beginning his career as a roustabout.
"I was just hammering nails then, starting out. Looking back, though, I was basically doing then what I am doing now."
A flair for theatrics
Farese says his dad was just helping out "extraordinary people in extraordinary situations," and that ideal attracted him to the business.
One of Farese's favorite songs is Bob Dylan's "Hurricane" from the 1976 album, "Desire." The song tells the story of Rubin Carter, who was wrongly convicted of three New Jersey murders and spent 19 years in prison before being released.
One Oxford lawyer even claimed Farese has chosen to keep his bad teeth to help his arguments with the "ordinary" people who comprise a jury, and Farese admits that he "turns it up a notch" when visiting relatives in Massachusetts, adding substance to his Southern accent.
At his law school talk, after speaking for roughly 45 minutes, Farese opened the session up to questions.
At one point, his ethics in the courtroom were questioned with a reference to an exchange with the assistant district attorney during the Dill trial, when Farese, to some, screamed at the prosecution.
"I explained to her that (the assistant district attorney) had accused me of altering documents," Farese said. "And if he was going to accuse me like that in front of the jury, I was going to let him know, in front of the jury, that I did not alter any documents. She said, 'But you were five inches from his face, screaming at him.' I told her, 'Oh that? Well, that was for emphasis.'"
Emphasis or not, Farese's reputation keeps clients coming.
While filming "Cookie's Fortune" in Holly Springs, the actress Liv Tyler used Farese's backyard swimming pool in the afternoons. Before she left, she signed a picture of herself with the inscription, "To Steve, If trouble ever knocks on my door, I'm going to call 1-800-Steve Farese."
William Browning was managing editor for The Dispatch until June 2016.
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