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Legal lion Barry Cohen reveals leukemia and tells how it has changed his priorities

TAMPA — Time was, if you were in deep trouble, you turned to Barry Cohen.

He kept Jennifer Porter out of jail even after her hit-and-run accident left two children dead. He got charges against Steven and Marlene Aisenberg dropped and won them $3 million in fees when they were the only suspects in the disappearance of their 5-month-old baby.

In his pomp, the Mercer Law School graduate took on corporate giants and local law enforcement agencies with equal relish, often drawing an audience.

Cohen should have been in court Thursday, too, but the doors of his law firm were shuttered, his case notes in the hands of another attorney.

Instead, the 78-year-old spends many of his days in bed at his Hyde Park home watching CNN or at the Moffitt Cancer Center.

Cohen learned about four months ago he has leukemia, a potentially fatal form of blood cancer, and embarked on a trial form of chemotherapy.

The verdict he desperately wants now is more time.

"I heard leukemia and thought it was a death sentence," he said. "I was very scared. I’ve got a 16-year-old son that I didn’t want to leave."

For an attorney renowned for out-working and out-preparing his courtroom opponents, illness has meant drastic change.

There are no more seven-day work weeks, no more trips to the gym. His wife, Barbara Cohen, insisted he close his law practice, which he formed in 1975.

The leukemia began as myelodysplastic syndrome, a disease that affects normal blood cell production in the bone marrow.

When it progressed into full leukemia, he began a five-day-a-week chemotherapy regimen.

That had to be put on hold earlier this month after he contracted a "nasty" bacterial infection that put him in Tampa General Hospital for 10 days.

His appetite has suffered and he has lost 40 pounds. Friends began to fear for his life.

"I kind of figured he’d always be around and be out there spitting blood and pissing vinegar," said friend Tracy Sheehan, a retired Hillsborough County circuit judge. "He’s just a fighter. He never could believe he’d lose any fight."

Inevitably, his poor health led Cohen to take stock of his life.

He wants to spend more time with his wife and son. The love and support he has got from his three children from an earlier marriage has driven home how much they mean to him, he said.

And the man who would think nothing of appearing on cable news to bend a trial or public opinion his way now wants more quiet time, more chances to just read and think.

"I realized that things I thought in life were important really weren’t," he said. "Being a big-shot lawyer meant nothing compared to seeing my son grow up."

• • •

Cohen doesn’t believe he has stood in his last courtroom.

He has converted a room in his home into an office and is hanging onto a handful of cases he wants to try if his cancer retreats.

Listing them brings him obvious delight.

There’s the woman suing Walmart claiming that an over zealous security guard on his first day tried to frame her for shoplifting. Another is a CVS shopper accused of stealing an energy bar who said the security guard offered to let her go in exchange for sexual favors.

The cases are typical Cohen fare, a citizen up against a big corporation or powerful institution.

His drive to slap down authority he traces to a moment in his childhood, an undimmed memory that can still make him sob.

He was just 9 years old when he accompanied his father to a job in the kitchen at a Jacksonville country club. He watched in distress as his father was verbally abused and bullied by bosses.

"All these years later, it still hurts me," he said. "I swore I’d never be in a position to be bullied like that."

His knack for winning cases meant he also had wealthier clients. When lawyers and judges were in trouble, it was his help they often sought.

That included then-State Attorney E.J. Salcines, who was investigated for case fixing. Cohen took out a full page newspaper advertisement accusing then-U.S. Attorney Robert W. Merkle of McCarthyism. Salcines was never charged.

The zeal to win cost him friends.

He includes among them Lee Moffitt. The two have not spoken, Cohen said, since a medical malpractice case in 1998.

"I’m very proud of Lee and I loved him all these years," he said. "But Lee should have known my clients come first, my friendships come second."

He told that story while sitting for a blood transfusion at the hospital that exists because of Lee Moffitt’s persistence as a Florida legislator.

The irony isn’t lost on him.

"I’m going to call him one of these days," he said.

His illness has meant, reluctantly, letting some cases go.

Since 2014, he had been working on a lawsuit against the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office on behalf of a Brooksville man seeking $10 million in damages after his eye was pushed deep into his socket during an arrest after a noise complaint.

"I feel very passionate about police officers who wear a badge and get up on the stand and lie after putting their hand on the Bible," Cohen said.

Cohen in January asked his long-time friend and attorney Steve Yerrid to step in.

It was a big favor. Yerrid had to delve into four years worth of briefs and transcripts. He put his own caseload on hold.

The pair first met in the 1970s when they were both working on a racketeering case. Cohen took the rookie attorney, who is regarded as one of Tampa’s best trial lawyers, under his wing. They remain strong friends.

"People talk big in the saloon but going into the street and doing the gun fighting is a whole different thing," Yerrid said. "Barry is a gunslinger of the highest order."

Cohen promised Yerrid he would focus on his health but he can’t help but get involved. The pair have talked strategy and tactics on the phone even while Cohen was getting transfusions.

"He’ll be trying this case with me whether he’s in a hospital or wherever he is," Yerrid said.

Contact Christopher O’Donnell at [email protected] or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times

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Legal lion Barry Cohen reveals leukemia and tells how it has changed his priorities