Meet the Real Defenders
As different as day and night, Cristalli and Saggese's
illustrious careers include cases that have made national
headlines. In arguably the biggest case in Nevada history,
Cristalli defended Sandy Murphy, who, along with her lover, Rick
Tabish, were accused of the murder of Ted Binion, member of a
wealthy Las Vegas family which owned the Horseshoe Casino. The
case mesmerized the public with its tawdry details of a high
school pageant contestent-turned stripper becoming intimately
involved with Binion.
Murphy and Tabish, allegedly forced Binion to ingest a lethal
combination of Xanax, heroin, valium and black tar heroin. The
goal? To dispose of Binion, even as they sought to find the
location of his secret vault in the middle of the Nevada desert,
which they believed to contain millions of dollars worth of
cash, silver bullion and casino chips. After being found guilty
of first degree murder, Murphy, under Michael Cristalli's
representation was acquited in the retrial, while being
convicted of lesser charges.
The duo served as defense lawyers for superstar bodybuilder
Craig Titus and his wife, Kelly Ryan, who were charged in the
murder of their personal assistant, Melissa James. The case
garnered worldwide media attention as details emerged in the
bizarre case. First, there was the alleged sexual relationship
between Titus and James. At some point, James died and her body
was found in the trunk of Ryan's car, after it had been set
ablaze. Speculation ran rampant, with Titus claiming that James
had merely suffered a drug overdose. But James' head was
encased in duct tape -- what was the purpose in this and for the
burning of the vehicle?
Indeed, motive for the murder was never established, but along
the way, a prosecutor alleged in open court that Titus was part
of a plot to murder three witnesses who were scheduled to
testify. In the end, Titus and Ryan avoided being convicted of
first-degree murder, with the court accepting a plea of
second-degree murder for Titus and arson and battery with a
deadly weapon for Ryan.
1. How did your lives become a TV series?
Marc - A documentary film crew was following this person around and he was
referred to us by the ACLU when he was looking for a lawyer. We gave the
OK for the crew to shoot us and they became fascinated by our practice and
the types of criminal defense cases we handled. They wound up getting
financing from Fox for a documentary pilot and they really liked what they
captured. Most TV shows have focused on the prosecution side of things
but we gave them a look into the day-to-day lives of the defense. Fox
eventually turned it down as a reality series due to liability concerns,
but "The Defenders" evolved into a dramatic series at CBS.
Michael - I think we offered something unique -- the way we fight for our
clients and the way we interact with each other. At the core is the notion
that there's something that's just not right with the structure of the
justice system. Injustices are happening every day, people are being
wronged and someone needs to stand up for them. We fight for these
causes. And then there's the personal interaction with one another. We
look at life similarly, but arrive at our conclusions in different ways.
We offered a different dynamic about lawyers in general that the network
2. Why did FOX turn down the reality show (if you know)?
Marc - Joe and Harry Gantz, who were the filmmakers who made the
documentary, took the finished project back to Fox. They loved it, but
moving forward, they became concerned about the possibility that any and
all footage could potentially be subpoened by the D.A. Also, there was
the issue of attorney-client privilege. Any time a third party has access
to these communications, this privilege evaporates. They thought of
different ways of shooting around it, but came to the conclusion that it
would affect the way the show was shot. Eventually, they gave the project
back to the Gantz brothers, giving them their blessings to find another
home for the show.
Michael - Fox invested a lot of money into the documentary. They really
loved it, but reluctantly decided to pass on it as a series. Much to
their credit, they allowed us to pitch it other networks.
3. What gave you the idea to turn to CBS next?
Marc - Joe and Harry shopped the documentary around and took it to CBS.
They had the same concerns as Fox, but Nina Tassler, the president of the
network, really liked what she saw and suggested the possibility of
turning the reality show into a dramatic series.
Michael - CBS wanted to include all the elements of the documentary -- the
same hardcore legal issues and personal dynamics between the two main
lawyers. But being a drama, it would not be subject to liability issues.
4. There are lots of lawyers out there. What makes your particular
practice so special or different?
Marc - I think it's the way we handle our cases. We'll passionately
defend our clients and are definitely not a "case mill" law firm. We'll
fight for every little guy like it's World War III and believe the outcome
matters. It's always less work for me to plead out and not go to trial.
But we'll go down swinging. I had a client once who was facing major jail
time for something he didn't do. His co-defendant pled guilty because his
attorney told him he couldn't win and he wound up being sentenced to
something like 8 years. But we fought on. And on the last day of his
trial my client said to me, "No one has ever fought for me like you in my
entire life. No matter how it turns out, thank you for caring and thank
you for fighting for me." He wound up being acquitted, while the
co-defendant is still in jail today.
Michael - I think people who watched the documentary saw that we're real
guys -- people who are truthful and honest. We get up every morning and
fight for our clients. Our offices are not corporate, sterile or quiet
environment. We yell at each other and wear our emotions on our sleeves.
And we get into heated arguments with the prosecution because of what we
believe in. We always communicate our emotions and speak our minds -- but
also have sense of humor about ourselves. Most of all, we really care and
are very confident in our abilities as lawyers.
5. How is "The Defenders" different from other legal shows from the
Marc - The show is very unique -- it's directly derived from reality,
which has never been done with any dramatic series. We speak daily with
the producers and give continuous feedback on the accuracy of what they're
writing. Also, every case filmed so far is based on actual cases we've
handled. We're also unusual in that we offer a view from the defendant's
side of things. 90% of law shows are from the point of view of the
prosecutor, invariably painting the accused as guilty in very
black-and-white terms. "The Defenders" shows what is to be a defendant --
a regular person -- up against the state of Nevada, the Las Vegas police
department, and the District Attorneys' office and its unlimited
Michael - In the past ten years or so, there's been a very
black-and-white portrayal of the justice system. Notably absent from all
the television shows we've seen is any sense of development of the defense
or examination of social issues that may have caused the defendant to be
in the situation he's in. These mitigating circumstances might make him
not such a bad guy after all. Also missing is the idea that the
prosecution goes about their job in an unsavory way in their effort to get
a conviction, or that the judge may be harsh or cynical and merely wants
to move the case forward because his calendar is too full. There's also a
lack of character development with most of these shows -- you really don't
get to know what makes them tick. "The Defenders" gives viewers a chance
to see that the world of law is gray -- not black-and-white. It's also
got a great element of humor, too.
6. Is there any worry that people will think this is a remake of the old
show of the same name? Marc - No, there's no overlap at all, the name is
just a coincidence. I boxed professionally in the past and my name in the
ring is Marc "The Defender" Saggese!
Michael - Not at all. It's been quite a few years, so I don't know how
many people will remember the other show. We came up with "The Defenders"
because it's just a great title and fits the characters and storylines
7. Do you ever watch other TV shows about Las Vegas, and if so, what do
you think about them? Marc - Not really with television. But as for Las
Vegas-based movies, I never miss them! The ones I've seen usually portray
the city pretty accurately. Las Vegas is one of the most amazing places
on earth and I love it. So I'll certainly watch and enjoy.
Michael - I'll watch movies about Las Vegas whenever they're on.
"Casino," "Oceans 11" -- old or new, I'll always tune in. Las Vegas is
such a great background for films -- it's intriguing and mysterious with
lots of drama behind it. This town is fascinating and I'll watch anything
associated with it.
8. Do you think this show will be fairly accurate to your life?
Marc - Yes, but I expect they'll take dramatic liberties with certain
aspects of our lives. We understand that and it's certainly okay with us.
For instance, Jerry O'Connell plays my character and is a single,
charismatic guy who likes being around lots of women. On the other hand,
I recently got married and -- am a very happy married man!
Michael - I think it'll be accurate to a certain extent, but they have
taken some dramatic liberties to make the show more interesting. But
where things really hit home is in the interaction of Jim and Jerry's
characters and how they feel about law, the justice system and how they
protect their clients. That's where the writers have done a great job --
maintaining the integrity of the documentary and carrying it over to the
9. How are your friends and family reacting to your lives (and possibly
theirs) being put on screen?
Marc - I recently went through e-mails my
mother had sent me over the past year or so. And I watched the evolution
of her messages in regard to the show. From, "This is so wonderful" to
"Oh my goodness, it's happening!" to "It's actually here. We're so happy
for you." That summarizes the reaction from everyone in my family because
it's been moving forward for a few years. They're proud, excited and
supportive -- and it's an honor for me to be portrayed by Jerry O'Connell
in the show. I can't say enough about my family's support.
Michael - They're ecstatic, from the development of the documentary to the
development of the show. Just to have the opportunity to have a drama on
television that's about you -- it's surreal. It's really like hitting the
lottery in a sense. Everyone has been very supportive and interested in
the project. The nice thing about the show being a drama is that anything
someone likes and embraces, you can declare to be true. Any aspects that
might be less complimentary, you can say, "No, they took serious dramatic
liberties!" We can deny and admit at our leisure -- always a good thing!
10. Will you be making cameo appearances on the show as well?
Marc - Michael and I were in the first episode, in a scene with Frank
Sinatra, Jr. performing, with Jim and Jerry sitting in a booth next to us.
But most of it wound up on the cutting room floor. But one of the
writers said this might be a good thing, because they might be able to use
us in a later episode in a speaking role -- maybe as prosecutors!
Michael - We were already briefly in the pilot. We've been asking the
writers about writing an episode and maybe making an appearance in it. So
we're definitely looking forward to that opportunity. But if we wound up
playing prosecutors, it would certainly be a strange feeling.
11. What is it like working with Belushi and O'Connell?
Marc - They are off-the-charts amazing actors. I never knew how
difficult it was to do what they do until I was on the set and watched
them transform themselves in front of my eyes. They are also extremely
talented and flawlessly professional in how they approach their work. On a
personal level, they've been very kind and welcoming -- and both are very
funny guys to be around. Michael and I have spent time with them and now
consider them friends. I really never expected that, but that's just how
they are. Really wonderful people.
Michael - They're tremendous -- they're both great human beings and
super guys. We got to spend time with them and Jerry even visited Marc at
his house here in Las Vegas. They went to the court and Marc introduced
Jerry to the prosecutors -- showing him the ropes. As for Jim, he's just
a down-to-earth guy and very open and friendly. Moreover, they both really
know their craft. They're great comedic actors, who also have tremendous
facility in handling drama. They've been very receptive to us in our
continuing roles as consultants and we speak with them on a regular basis.
12. Are you still practicing law while you do this show (and if so, how do
you find the time for both)?
Marc - Everyday. A good lawyer sells his
time and his knowledge. And a good lawyer will find time for both. I
work hard and smart -- I work as a consultant on the show and also take
care of my clients. It's actually manageable if you intelligently budget
your time. And when it comes down to it, this is absolutely essential, as
these are the products we have to offer.
Michael - Yes -- we just work more. The number one priority is our
practice and clients. We have a great support staff here at the office.
As for the show, we work harder and longer hours -- reading scripts in the
evenings and in the morning, consulting with the writers or actors via
phone or e-mail, flying out to the set in the evenings and back to court
in the morning. It's a balancing act, but we're fortunate that there's
two of us, so we can help each other out with commitments.
13. I know that a lot of "locals" in Vegas don't gamble much or even go to
the strip. Is that what it's like for you guys, or are you really into the
night life there?
Marc - I'm not into the nightlife of Las Vegas at all.
We work long days, so after work I usually go out for a six-mile run, then
it's to bed. If it's Friday or Saturday night, my wife and I may go out
to a nice dinner or a show. I don't participate in gambling, either.
It's available here 24/7, so there's really no urgency to hit the tables.
But I do love the lights, action and atmosphere of the city.
Michael - No, I've been married for 17 years, so most of my spare time is
spent with my family. We live in a quiet area of Las Vegas, which has a
small town feel to it. It's nice to know the glamour of Las Vegas is
available to you. A visit to the strip or dinner in a nice restaurant is
14. What can viewers look forward to with your show? What will surprise
Marc - We look forward to serious issue being portrayed accurately, as
well as the levity that is a part of our day-to-day lives. We hope to add
some lightness to the otherwise heavy issues we deal with. It's really a
coupling of these two components -- we're handling very serious legal
issues, but in the midst of it, there's still humor to be found. And Jim
and Jerry capture it flawlessly.
Michael - Viewers will see a different dynamic than what they've been
accustomed to seeing in a law show. They'll see bigger-than-life
character development in terms of their business and personal lives, and
unique interaction between the two lead characters. Also, the cynicism
and injustices of the legal system will come through. They'll see the
development of the defendant and his perspective -- and why his social
circumstances might be mitigating issues as to why he should or should not
be charged in a case. Plus, there is a great combination of drama and
comedic elements. All of this is unique to the law show format.
15. Anything else you'd like to tell us about your show?
Marc - "The Defenders" is unique -- a one-of-a-kind show with real
attorneys, portraying the law accurately and offering a dramatized view of
their private lives. We've been working tirelessly to keep it as
authentic as possible. Unlike other dramatic law shows, which are almost
completely fabricated, ours will portray things exactly as they are. It's
really the only show of its kind.
Michael - "The Defenders" is a wonderful opportunity to shed light on the
law in a different manner from what the public has been used to seeing.
Our show will demonstrate the constitutional issues that are involved in a
case and also let audiences see the emotional aspects that affect everyone
-- the victim, the prosecution and the defense attorneys. It also affects
their families and we'll see how the two lead characters have to go home
and deal with their personal lives after spending the day on a some really
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