Publication date: May 2005
What If You Discovered Your Closest Relatives Were Deeply Entangled with the
La Famiglia and Their Blind Advocate
by Dominic Sposeto with Sherry Sposeto-Jakey
Out of the blue, Dominic Sposeto, a young, blind criminal attorney born in
Des Moines, Iowa, and living in San Jose, Calif., received a life-changing
The caller spoke with a heavy Italian accent. He said he had known Sposeto’s
grandmother and needed to speak with Sposeto in person, and in private.
During the ensuing visit, the old man explained how immigrant southern Italian
families had gradually become involved in organized crime at the turn of the
last century, and that one such center was Des Moines. He warned Sposeto that
he might be putting himself in danger in some of his legal cases in which
present-day underworld figures in California played a part.
Sposeto left the meeting with the uneasy feeling that the old man was gently
suggesting Sposeto’s own family might have been involved in nefarious
Shocked and curious, Sposeto set about researching his own roots. What he
learned confirmed his worst suspicions. He wrote, “Prohibition was fast
approaching, and it was at this time the family, while living in Des Moines,
Iowa, became involved in bootlegging which erupted into warring factions in
the Italian underworld and an ugly tale of murder and retaliation which left
a trail of tears and devastation.”
In the spellbinding memoir La Famiglia and Their Blind Advocate,
the reader accompanies Sposeto as he uncovers fact after surprising fact about
a Des Moines unimaginable today but very real to his ancestors—where
threats, treachery and cold-blooded shootings were commonplace, and immigrant
families lived in constant fear.
The reader follows the tale to the 1940s, when influential Sicilian connections
and the family matriarch led the family to leave the Midwest and seek a better
way of life in Northern California.
And finally we accompany Sposeto as he goes about creating his own amazing
life. Blind since his early 20s, he nevertheless rose to nationwide prominence
as a criminal trial attorney and defended over 1,000 clients in court. Looking
back at his life and career now from the pinnacle at age 70, Sposeto shows
us that his lifelong goal of restoring the honor of his family has finally
June 9, 2005
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
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
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 â€“
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.'"
published in the Sonoma Index Tribune.
Posted 3 weeks, 2 days ago on June 9, 2005
and Their Blind Advocate is now out of print. Dom wishes to offer the
book, now in ebook form, FREE to download.]