For many years, criminal defense attorney Frederick Rench took on some of the most difficult cases in the Capital Region, in state and federal court. In 2015, one rather imposing client even assaulted Rench during a trial where that client had been charged with attacking a prior attorney. After suffering a cut hand, Rench remarked “That’s all he’s got? 250 pounds, that’s it?” and continued representing the client at trial.
Rench retired in mid-2022, only to be quickly pressed back into service as a Special Prosecutor. For the first time in his career, Rench found himself on the other side of the aisle, in several high-profile cases, most notably the Schoharie County limousine crash trial that ended on May 17, 2023, with guilty verdicts on all counts.
Rench discussed what caused him to come out of retirement, his perspective as a new prosecutor following a 30-year career as a defense attorney, and perhaps a new career as a competitive dancer.
1. You retired. What caused you to come out of retirement?
I retired in June of 2022 not knowing what that would mean for me or what shape my life would take as a retiree. Without any sort of plan I, predictably, reverted to past bad habits and within a few months was involved in three murder cases in three different counties and two Special Prosecutor cases, one of which was very complicated. By December it began to occur to me that perhaps I had taken on a bit too much work as I did not have an office nor any support staff. And that’s about the time the phone rang, it was the Schoharie County District Attorney asking if I had any interest in helping her prepare the witnesses for the upcoming limousine crash case. After listening to her explain the case and my limited role in it, I told her I would be glad to help her out. We concluded with her saying she would get back to me after my appointment as Special Prosecutor had been ordered by the Schoharie County Court.
2. Are you at an advantage because you don’t have to tend to a full caseload in addition to your Special Prosecutor assignments?
Without question the absence of the day-to-day pressure of running a law office frees up an enormous amount of time and, more importantly, brain space to think about and re-think about the work I am doing whether it may be a Special Prosecutor case or a defense case. The net result is most certainly an advantage though it is no guarantee. I am given to and really enjoy thinking deeply about all aspects of the case, walking around its perimeter, and peering in from every angle looking for an approach my opponent has failed to consider or failed to fully appreciate. If I should find a viable approach, it is then developed as fully as possible, which includes finding descriptive, colorful language to communicate the idea in a manner that the jury will understand. Lastly, I walk around the perimeter of the approach itself to consider its vulnerabilities and how to defend against any attack my opponent may make. Retirement provides a far greater opportunity for me to do this sort of thing.
3. Do you bring a different perspective to prosecuting cases as a result of your many years as a criminal defense attorney?
Yes, I believe that is true, however, your readers should understand that prior to the limousine crash case I had never tried a criminal case as a prosecutor. I estimate I have had 70 or 80 felony trials but always on the defense side. The Schoharie case was not the ideal circumstance for my first trial as a prosecutor and I certainly had no idea that I would ultimately find myself in that position when I agreed to assist the District Attorney, but I think things worked out the right way.
4. Now that you’ve prosecuted a few cases, is there something you learned about the prosecution side that you wish you had known as a criminal defense attorney?
One thing is the time-consuming job of gathering and preparing the prosecution witnesses. I have always worked alone, looking for weaknesses in the prosecution’s case, not using my own witnesses very often and therefore not having to rely on another person to assist me in doing my job. Entirely different as a prosecutor. If that witness is not on his or her game, if he or she omits critical, descriptive language in giving an answer, you could be in for a very bad day. As a person who likes to be in complete control of the case, the notion of having to rely on others – the witnesses – is somewhat daunting. That said, my witnesses testified quite well.
5. In the Schoharie limo case, you had only a few months to get up to speed on one of the worst transportation disasters in recent American history. What was your approach to learning about the case?
As I mentioned, initially I was contacted in December of 2022 for the limited purpose of preparing witnesses for trial. The follow-up phone call to confirm that I had been appointed did not occur until a month later and I actually met with the District Attorney in mid-January, leaving 105 days until the trial was to begin. Prior to the meeting I reviewed 100 pages of the file including defendant’s omnibus motion, the People’s response and the court’s decision/order as well as some additional materials. Based upon this limited information, I felt the manslaughter case was viable.
As time went on I became only more convinced that the manslaughter prosecution, based upon a regulatory violations theory, was very sound. It was decided that we would pursue the regulatory violations approach, I would pick the jury, present the opening statement, directly examine the state Department of Transportation witness most familiar with the regulations and, finally, present the closing argument.
I withdrew from representing defendants in six other cases, including one murder case, and immersed myself in the Schoharie case. I bought a role of white paper, 30 inches wide and 200 feet long. I stapled a twelve-foot piece of the paper to my basement wall (I live with my adult son, he found this humorous) and handwrote onto the paper every regulation that I would use in the case. On the main floor of my house I stapled additional, smaller pieces of white paper to the walls in the dining room and handwrote significant portions of grand jury testimony or witness statements that supported the theory of the prosecution. Lastly, I had three whiteboards in the kitchen and dining room upon which I wrote ideas as they occurred to me. The dining room table held grand jury testimony, the State Police Report, the brake expert’s Forensic Analysis Report and pages of research.
I stopped going to the gym, stopped going to my ballroom dance lessons and I stopped earning money. I was totally immersed in the case.
6. Now that you’ve worked as a Special Prosecutor in high-profile cases in Albany and Schoharie Counties, are you getting calls to do more cases elsewhere?
As of now, I have not been contacted to do any other Special Prosecutor cases. I intend to take the summer off to relax and repair some damaged walls in my house.
7. Do you miss federal criminal defense practice at all?
I do miss practicing in federal court. I spent a lot of time in Albany and met many wonderful people over the course of 30 years. I miss the people, the social aspect of the practice of law. And, to a much lesser extent, I miss the action, the competitive nature of the practice of law. Criminal defense in general and trial work in particular require commitment, determination, and stamina. While I am still fully capable, as the limousine case would suggest, I am now more interested in working out, traveling and improving my technical grasp of international foxtrot. Although I have only been dancing for about nine months, my teacher wants me to compete. She says I have the fire for it. No clue where she got that idea from.