Ex-cop knows courtroomFordham Law School in Times Union, December 13, 2010
ALBANY -- Bob Knightly has been sitting in the courtroom each day of the high-profile Richard Bailey murder trial, observing the proceedings from various perspectives: retired New York City cop, crime novelist, defense attorney.
He's not shy about offering an insider's assessment.
"Cheryl Coleman is as good a defense lawyer as I've seen and I've seen a lot of them in New York City," Knightly said. "She's passion incarnate. And she knows her stuff."
It must be noted that Knightly shares office space in the same building as Coleman and is an unabashed fan of hers.
Knightly has been less impressed watching prosecutor David Rossi in action. "He's a very competent lawyer, but very dull," Knightly said.
Between bites of a thick cheeseburger smothered in raw red onions and potato chips, he glanced over his shoulder at Rossi and two others from the DA's office seated two tables over at the Pearl Street Pub, just down the street from the courthouse on North Pearl Street.
Knightly shrugged and declined to lower his voice, a raspy Brooklynese that he peppers with salty language.
At 5-foot-9 and 250 pounds, with a bushy white beard and a square, jowly mug, he looks like central casting's version of an old-school NYPD patrolman. Which is what he was for 20 years before his retirement in 1987.
Knightly, 70, grew up in the Irish working-class section of the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn. He became besotted with the writing of Flannery O'Connor, Bernard Malamud and Robert Stone. He dreamed of becoming a writer and earned a degree in English literature from St. John's University, where he dabbled in writing fiction.
Earlier, he'd completed a stint in the Army from 1961 to 1963, where he served as an English language instructor in San Juan, Puerto Rico. It was good duty and he had enough time left on his hands to take a job as a night proofreader on the San Juan Star. He worked alongside the paper's editors, Albany natives Andy Viglucci and William Kennedy. He reconnected with them at local literary events 45 years later, after Knightly moved to New York's capital city.
When his journalism career foundered after a mind-numbing job editing Maintenance Supplies magazine in New York and a literary career seemed a pipe dream, he heeded his Irish grandmother's advice. "Bobby, why don't you work for the cops? It's a steady job and good benefits."
He was assigned to Brooklyn North and patrolled some tough beats: Bedford-Stuyvesant, Crown Heights, Fort Greene. He worked in uniform in an unmarked brown Plymouth and busted scores of drug dealers, chop shops, gun runners and counterfeiters.
"We ran a dozen informants, squeezed them, typed up search warrants and had a friendly judge who signed them," he said. "We never bothered with the DA's office."
He recalled working two hellish days of rioting in the Bronx during a 1977 blackout. He roamed the chaotic scene in street clothes, making liberal use of a nightstick on looters. "The nightstick is a cop's best tool and should be brought back," he said. "Busting a thug's kneecaps is a lot better than shooting him."
He made sergeant in the 83rd Precinct in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and retired as a lieutenant in a Greenwich Village precinct. "They took pity on the old man," he said.
While still on the force, Knightly attended night classes at Fordham Law School, completed his law degree and passed the bar. After retiring as a cop, he spent 18 years as a criminal defense lawyer with the New York City Legal Aid Society in Manhattan and Queens courts.
He and his wife, Rose, a former corporate executive chef in New York City, moved into their Center Square row house in 2007. "We love it up here," he said. "It's as close to the country as we want to get."
Knightly has been working as an assigned counsel locally, taking the cases of defendants the Public Defender's office doesn't have the staff to handle.
Watching the Bailey trial, he's reminded of how much he believes Albany cops could learn from the NYPD's policing strategies back in his day.
"They need street cops to stop, frisk and arrest suspects," Knightly said. "That's how you get the guns off the street. They've done some good police work in Albany, but they need to do more of it. And they need to be more aggressive."
He talks in staccato bursts of Raymond Chandler-esque prose, not unlike his characters in "Bodies of Winter," his first novel, published last year by Severn House, a British publisher. He just signed a contract with Severn for a sequel, "The Cold Room," scheduled to be published in May, 2011.
His narrator for the crime series is hard-boiled, softhearted NYPD Detective Harry Corbin. "He's a composite of the cops I worked with," he said.
As for the Bailey trial, Knightly says the evidence against murder suspect De Von Callicutt has been compelling, but the disputed confession letters from prison and other weaknesses in the case give the edge to Coleman.
Pressed for a prediction, Knightly believes Callicutt will be convicted of first-degree manslaughter or second-degree murder.
"But I don't think they'll get him on murder first," he added. "No way."