In 2003, Andrew C. LoTempio did something almost unheard-of in Buffalo legal circles.
Halfway through his 10-year term as a City Court judge, LoTempio decided to walk away. Making $114,000 a year as a judge had its good points, but LoTempio said he wanted to return to work he really enjoyed as a criminal defense attorney.
"Criminal defense is what I was meant to do," LoTempio said. "I'm good at it. I love trying cases. . . . I missed that every day while I was on the bench."
The 43-year-old lawyer knows he faces one of his biggest challenges yet as the attorney for Altemio C. Sanchez, accused of the so-called "bike path killings."
LoTempio has represented controversial defendants before -- ranging from vicious hit men to Cheektowaga's "Deer Lady" -- but he admits he never has had a client who has attracted as much local and national publicity as Sanchez.
"The police and the prosecution, through the media, have already convicted this man," LoTempio said during an interview in his downtown office. "That's where I come in. I'm going to fight for this man. . . . That's what I do."
A former Golden Gloves boxer, the 5-foot, 7-inch LoTempio is known as a fighter among legal-community colleagues. He is a veteran of almost 40 homicide trials and is renowned for his scrappy style in the courtroom.
"He's the perfect lawyer to han
dle something like the bike path case," said Timothy W. Hoover, a federal public defender. "He doesn't talk down to juries. He talks common sense. He's good at making complex issues understandable. Andy has tried some cases that looked very difficult and won acquittals."
LoTempio says he learned a lot about people while working as a bartender, auto mechanic and a blacktop sealer before he became an attorney in 1988.
"I'm a guy who has always felt sympathy for the defendants, the people who have made mistakes in their lives," LoTempio said. "The defense lawyer's job is to keep the system honest, because sometimes the police really do just 'round up the unusual suspects.' Or they'll rush to judgment and lock somebody up just to clear a case."
LoTempio had never met his client before Sanchez's arrest Jan. 15 in the bike path case. The Sanchez family retained LoTempio on the recommendation of another local attorney who knows the family.
LoTempio said he hasn't decided on a trial strategy because, so far, most of what he knows about the case came from "you guys -- the newspaper." He hasn't been allowed to review the evidence collected by law enforcement agencies and the Erie County district attorney's office.
But he vows to take a very close look at every piece of evidence, including DNA evidence, and closely examine whether police obtained it legally.
LoTempio said he hopes people in Western New York will wait to hear more about the case before demonizing Sanchez.
"So far, in my meetings with [Sanchez], he seems the guy that his neighbors and co-workers say he is," LoTempio said. "The kind of guy I could go out and have a beer with."
Sanchez, so far, is charged with two slayings. Police have called him the prime suspect in another death and at least seven sexual assaults.
LoTempio said he never has been squeamish about defending people charged with the worst violence and mayhem.
His long list of clients includes:
Forrest D. Miles, described as a violent East Side hit man. The judge who sent Miles to prison for 37 1/2 years to life for two murders called him "animalistic."
Michael Morgan, known as "Ant," a mentally unbalanced man who was sent to prison for at least 25 years for killing and dismembering his live-in girlfriend.
Domenick Sutton, who was sentenced to life in prison for taking part in four execution-style murders in a Koons Avenue home. A judge called the crime "the most depraved, despicable act I've ever seen."
David Krause, known as "Kato," a child molester who is serving at least 10 years for sexually abusing boys he met while serving as a Boy Scout leader, a soccer coach and in other volunteer activities.
The attorney has had some notable acquittals, too.
In 1994, he represented David Walker, who was accused of firebombing an apartment building on Allenhurst Road in Amherst. The fire killed a 27-year-old man and his 3-year-old son. Police said Walker bombed the building in an attempt to harm a former girlfriend who had lived there.
The acquittal outraged the victims' friends and family members.
"There were too many missing links in the chain of evidence," LoTempio said.
In 2004, LoTempio won an acquittal for Jesse Johnson, who had been accused of a string of eight East Side arsons, even though Johnson admitted to police that he set the fires.
At trial, LoTempio presented evidence that Johnson admitted to the arsons only because investigators told him some of his friends -- who were city firefighters -- were suspected of setting the fires.
When a reporter visited his office, LoTempio was preparing for the upcoming trial of Justin Kelly, 20, who is accused of fatally stabbing Paul McCabe of North Buffalo while trying to steal McCabe's cell phone.
Soon after that, LoTempio will defend Ahmir Cole, a former football star at Seneca Vocational High School and Buffalo State College. Cole, 24, is accused of murdering George Pitliangas last year during a robbery at Pitliangas' restaurant, Tony's Ranch House on Main Street.
LoTempio, who is married and has a daughter, said it bothers him when people occasionally criticize him for defending people charged with crimes.
"First of all, I never condone the crime itself, and there's never a time when I don't feel sympathy for the victims or their families," LoTempio said. "But if you don't give everyone the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair defense, we live in a police state. It's guys like me who prevent our court system from becoming the kind of system you'd find in Nazi Germany."
While a judge, LoTempio attracted much public criticism in 1999, after he dismissed a driving-while-intoxicated charge against the son of a longtime friend. Police contended the man could not walk a straight line or recite the alphabet past the letter D.
Considering all the evidence and circumstances, LoTempio said, he remains convinced that dismissing the charge was the right thing to do.
"That whole situation made me realize that I still felt like a defense attorney," LoTempio recalled. "I have compassion for the defendant."