Most lawyers would be mortified if they were ever publicly compared to Saul Goodman, the sleazy attorney from Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul who has no qualms supporting a meth operation or cavorting with killers.
Howard Greenberg isn't most lawyers.
Standing outside a Manhattan Supreme Courtroom Friday morning a few minutes after making his closing argument in a sex trafficking case, Greenberg invites comparison to the dysfunctional attorney even as he oozes confidence in his own abilities.
"I'm a poor excuse for a lawyer, and don't you forget it!" he jokes.
Greenberg is well known in New York criminal justice circles for enthusiastically taking on clients who have done terrible things to people, and this case is no exception. He readily admits his client, Karmik Grant-Byas—who is charged with promoting prostitution and four counts of sex trafficking—is a "scumbag" and has done "despicable" things to women.
In his closing argument, Greenberg even encouraged the jury to find his client guilty of the prostitution charge. "Had they charged him with assault, I would ask you to also find him guilty of that," he claimed. Still, Grant-Byas is no sex trafficker, he argued: "I trust Manhattan jurors to know the difference between sex trafficking and prostitution."
Greenberg's closing statement, which he mostly read from handwritten notes scrawled on loose pieces of paper, drew countless objections from prosecutors—which were all sustained—and numerous interjections and scornful looks from Judge Bonnie Wittner. "John Adams was branded a pimp when he defended British soldiers who fired into a crowd at the Boston Tea Party," Greenberg noted near the beginning of his argument, immediately drawing an objection from the prosecution.
"It's very interesting English history," Wittner interjected, visibly angry. "But it's not relevant to this summation."
Greenberg, whose unkempt mad scientist hairstyle is unmistakable, spent about 20 minutes of his hour-and-a-half closing on a series of sarcastic one-liners. "The supposed victims of sex trafficking always shed a tear for the defendant, yeah right…. The supposed victims of sex trafficking always look healthy as a horse, yeah right…. The supposed victims of sex trafficking can always refuse a job with a John, yeah right."
"Did any of that laundry list paint the picture of somebody who's in sexual slavery?" Greenberg asked jurors. "The hoes committed voluntary sex acts committed by the spirit of free will."
The felony sex trafficking charges, prosecutors countered, are supported by a raft of text messages, phone calls, and physical evidence that show Grant-Byas often used threats and violence to coerce four women into turning tricks. "Getting in trouble with the defendant meant a beating," Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Dolle told the jury. "You heard his reaction when [one of the women] broke the rules: 'Bitch, I'm going to fuck you up when I see you.'"
Dolle clicked through a clinical slideshow of monstrous behavior. Photos of forearm burns and a busted lip. Phone recordings of him screaming at the women for not bringing in enough money. (In one recording played for the jury, Grant-Byas said: "Nah, I'm good, I had Tims on. I stomped that bitch ribs.")
But the case is complicated by the fact that Jennifer Encarnacion, one of the women prosecutors claim was the subject of intense physical violence that included being punched in the face and burned with a flatiron, testified as a witness for the defense. Her testimony was widely circulated in New York's tabloids, which quoted her saying that working for Grant-Byas afforded her money and freedom, and that her clients included New York law enforcement officials and a Chicago judge. (Media outlets typically don't name victims of sex crimes, but in a brief interview with VICE immediately after Friday's closing arguments, Encarnacion gave permission to use her name and disputed the prosecution's characterization of her victimhood.)
"I am not a victim. This is what I choose to do," Encarnacion, 22, tells me while standing near an elevator bank in the courthouse by her mother's side. "My mom knows what I do and she's totally OK with it."
As for the evidence of being burned and beaten, she insists, "It's a regular relationship. Everybody goes through stuff. He's not charged with assault—he's charged with sex trafficking. Sex trafficking is forcing people. There was no victims saying that he forced them."
Still, in her closing, Dolle tried to discredit Encarnacion's testimony, telling the jury, "People cannot consent to being abused," and that Grant-Byas ran a prostitution ring "through violence, threats, intimidation, and control." The prosecutor also pointed out that Encarnacion is subsidizing her pimp's legal bill. (For his part, Greenberg acknowledges that three of the alleged victims are financially backing Grant-Byas's defense.)
But Encarnacion bristles at the claim that she was somehow not in control of her own body and says that if Grant-Byas is acquitted, she won't hesitate to work for him again. "She was not there—she doesn't know what I went through," she says, referring to the prosecutor. "I stand by him regardless of what these people say, and I always will."
In the final moments of Greenberg's closing, he emphasized his client's guilt on the prostitution charge and called the trial a "monumental waste of resources," a claim that drew an immediate objection.
"Not only have I managed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is not guilty of sex trafficking," Greenberg said, "I have also along the way managed to prove that every day is a bad hair day for me."
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