They say that “justice is blind.” But what if your defense attorney is blind as well? Such was the case for the thousands of clients of Sonoma resident Dominic Sposeto, a nationally-recognized lawyer and now author. Many of the cases Sposeto worked on are detailed in his recently published memoir, “La Famiglia and their Blind Advocate,” in which Sposeto also recounts a family history spotted with mafia affiliations.
Sposeto’s conversation is sprawling and brims with anecdotes and asides. Whereas some spin yarns, Sposeto weaves whole verbal tapestries from such seemingly disparate threads as dock workers, Sicilian fisherman, jazz singers, family lore, a nightclub he owned and the specter of the mafia always looming.
An avid swimmer as a young man (the enterprising Sposeto directed aquatics programs throughout the East Bay in his late teens), a diving injury agitated a congenital retinal condition that would leave him blind by the age of 20.
Sposeto credits his mother Mary (referred to throughout the book as “Mama”) with supporting him through the trying transition into permanent darkness.
“She was great in that regard, she encouraged me to get off my butt and go to the blind center. I had a hell of an adjustment,” says the affable Sposeto. “Back in those the days, the blind center and the blind homes were all in one. So they put me next these guys in their 80s and 90s. It was difficult thing to take. All these kids that I knew who were sighted were coming around the school — they didn’t like that at all because I was really wasn’t integrating that well with the blind. They wanted strict orientation, jump in, get in the groove, get your cane and start going out,” recalls Sposeto. “I didn’t last — they booted me out.”
Fortunately, Sposeto crossed paths with lauded author, jurist, scholar and eventual founder of the National Federation of the Blind, Jacobus tenBroek, who was then at the University of California at Berkeley.
“This guy was just about as good as it gets,” says Sposeto of the man, who was also blind, that would become one of many mentors he recounts throughout La Famiglia. With tenBroek’s inspiration Sposeto decided to pursue the law — a daunting proposition for the sighted let alone a young man just beginning to cope with blindness himself.
“I never really learned Braille. I got into it enough to play cards and label files, that kind of thing,” says Sposeto, who absorbed the letter of the law through readers assigned to him by Santa Clara University where he would later graduate in 1961.
Sposeto learned and created mnemonic devices that imprinted the volumes of legalese on his memory, a boon when he took the bar examination and passed without a hitch.
“Law in my opinion, is the least learned of the professions,” Sposeto quips. “If you’ve got a memory and the aptitude for it, it’s a slam dunk — really. There’s no dispensations for the bar exams. The told me that going into law school. They said ‘Look buddy, you’re going to prepare briefs just like everybody else and do library research,’” recalls Sposeto. “They said ‘When it comes to the bar exam, you get a reader and that’s it.’”
Soon after, Sposeto became Chief Counsel and Administrator of Santa Clara County Legal Aide and Defender Association and later set up private practice as a criminal trial lawyer and worked on thousands of cases including death penalty cases.
“Trial work was my forte,” Sposeto recounts, though he worked up to it gradually.
“I had the good fortune of being appointed the first head of legal in the public defender’s office in Santa Clara County. It helped me to adjust as a blind person — I was scared to death — who the hell wants a blind lawyer?”
Sposeto is open and frank when discussing his blindness. He doesn’t regard it as a disability as such and seldom did it interfere with his professional life, except on the rare occasion that he would accidentally wear two different colored shoes in the courtroom.
“The disadvantages are obvious — you’re going to bump into walls, you’re going to miss the good looking gals,” he laughs. “The thing I most miss are the little expressions of children. That I miss more than anything.”
Inasmuch as there are disadvantages to being blind, Sposeto has developed several skills that have aided his practice over the years – skills he says he would not have honed so effectively were he still sighted. Sposeto, naturally, is immune to the poker faces that those with something to hide often employ. He can tell when someone is lying simply through the shifts in their voice.
“For forty years I practiced law and I learned to develop my own insight and ability. I don’t want secretaries telling me what people look like. I want to sit down and get to know them when I’m representing them. It’s just a phenomenal gift of being able to get an insight into a human being. I could pick up when someone was lying just from verbal intonations. I could develop unbelievable profiles. Obese people, for example, have a certain profile. Yuppies have a certain profile,” Sposeto guffaws.
“When selecting a jury I never wanted to know what they looked like. I developed an ability to set profiles by voice. Of course, you can’t be one hundred percent because of some impediments people have, but you learn to listen. The greatest advantage to come from blindness, if there was one, is developing a great sense of listening and being spontaneous, which was helpful in trial work,” says Sposeto.
Somewhat incredulous, this reporter asked Sposeto to assess my voice and tell me my age. Without hesitation he correctly answered 32.
“I’ve been called for many cases just to interview and cross examine people just because they respected the insight I had,” says Sposeto. “If people were lying I had my own method and technique to cross examine. It was very unorthodox.”
It was Sposeto’s unorthodox methods that first garnered the attention of publishers interested in the fabled blind advocate. The author staved off the notion of publishing his memoir for years until finally deciding to publish the work himself this year.
With the aid of friend and former wife Sherry Sposeto-Jakey (he has been married to wife Wanda Botto for 23 years), the first half of the book recounts Sposeto’s family history, which includes mob connections Sposeto only became aware of when considering a run for congress. The latter half of the work spans his distinguished career in law, which included writing briefs to the Supreme Court and arguing cases before the California Supreme Court. It was includes a fair number of comical situations.
An example is when Sposeto was a greenhorn lawyer representing his sister Isabel in an uncontested divorce hearing at which their sister Frances served as a witness. All three siblings were blind from the same retinal condition, which prompted the judge to ask if he could refer to the case as “A Hearing of the Three Blind Mice?”
Later, when working with a judge who constantly mumbled, Sposeto had to constantly ask him to repeat himself. Finally the judge snapped “Look, Sposeto, I put up with you being blind for 20 years. If you go deaf, that’s the end of ya!’”There is, however, no end in sight for Sposeto. He still practices law, generally doing pro bono work, but is essentially retired. And though he enjoyed crafting La Famiglia he has no present plans to pen a sequel.
“I’m anecdotal, I’m not a creative writer. When I first started putting this stuff out there, all my buddies who looked at it said you ought to stay with the law and forget creative writing,” he laughs. “I did this for the family — there’s a lot of history, study and background. I had no intent otherwise, but everybody said, ‘Put this out.’”
La Famiglia and Their Blind Advocate is available at Amazon.com
Originally published in the Sonoma Index Tribune.