“Combat in the Courtroom” Episode One: The Murder Trial of Aaron Mintz

In what was the most sensational case in New Orleans in thirty years and the first-ever trial to earn wall-to-wall coverage on local television news, Mike Fawer became an overnight celebrity and the city’s most sought-after criminal defense attorney as he represented a prominent furniture dealer charged with murdering his wife.

Listen to Episode One of “Combat in the Courtroom” on Apple Podcast by clicking here.

It was Super Bowl Sunday, 1984. The game, a blowout win by the Los Angeles Raiders over the Washington Redskins, was unremarkable, but that night, with six minutes and twenty-two seconds left to play in the third quarter, the world was introduced to a revolutionary piece of technology that would eventually transform the global economy, the arts, culture, education, and science.

Even today, the commercial that aired that night is still hailed as “the greatest television ad of all-time.” I’m referring, of course, to the Apple’s “1984” commercial, which marked the debut of its new personal computer, the Macintosh.

Apple’s iconic “1984” commercial, which announced the Macintosh personal computer.

In New Orleans, football season had ended with the last game of the regular season, with the Saints finishing a disappointing 7-9 under head coach Bum Philips. The city, instead, was in the middle of preparing for the gargantuan 1984 World’s Fair, which was set to open in May. Edwin Washington Edwards had just been re-elected to an unprecedented third term as Louisiana governor in the most expensive non-presidential election in American history. On that particular Sunday, Edwards wasn’t in Louisiana. He and 617 of his top supporters were traveling together on an unforgettable vacation to Versailles; it was hailed as the single biggest political fundraiser of all-time.

Early that morning, on Versailles Boulevard in Uptown New Orleans, well before the sun came up, Aaron Mintz, a well-known furniture store owner and a member of one of the city’s most prominent families, padded down the stairs of his home. Aaron, who was battling a painful case of the shingles, had been having trouble sleeping. So, with his wife Palma (sometimes called by the nickname Pam) upstairs in the couple’s master bedroom, he turned on the living room television, hoping that it would lull him to sleep, at least for a few hours.

Sometime between 5:20 and 5:30 in the morning, Aaron heard a loud bang upstairs. He fumbled through the darkened home and back up the stairs. When he walked into the master bedroom, he saw Palma, still in bed and covered in a pool of blood. She was gripping a small gun- a Mauser- in her hand. Aaron panicked. He draped himself over her body. His hands and the robe he was wearing were now covered in blood.

Beside Palma, he noticed a foam pillow that was out of place; it belonged with the daybed in an adjoining room. For some reason- maybe it was panic, maybe it was adrenaline, he picked up the pillow, walked through the bathroom that connected to the room with the daybed, smearing blood on the light switches, and then, he put the pillow back where it belonged.

He remembered one of his neighbors was a doctor, Ralph Meier, so he rushed back down the stairs and hurried over to the doctor’s house. Dr. Meier followed him back, and almost immediately after seeing Palma’s body, he told Aaron the news he feared the most: His wife Palma was dead.

At 5:55AM, the doctor called 911.

Image by the Bayou Brief.

The murder trial of Aaron Mintz became an unprecedented media sensation. Local news stations breathlessly reported on every detail, both big and small, that occurred inside of the courtroom; their satellite trucks lined the perimeter of the Orleans Criminal Court on the corner of Tulane and Broad. WWL brought on a new special correspondent: Ralph Capitelli, who had served as one of District Attorney Harry Connick, Sr.’s top deputies before resigning to start his own criminal defense firm.

By the end of the trial, nearly everyone involved had become a local celebrity, and no one’s star rose more quickly than Aaron Mintz’s attorney, Mike Fawer. A decade before Shreveport’s Johnnie Cochran would assemble a legendary legal “dream team” to defend O.J. Simpson, Mike Fawer recruited his own team of nationally-renowned forensics experts to join Aaron Mintz’s defense team.

Money was no object, and, as it turned out, Aaron Mintz was going to need to spend a fortune if he had any chance at convincing a jury to vote for an acquittal.

The government’s case appeared to be solid, and because of the media hype, the majority of New Orleanians had made up their minds before the trial even began. In the court of public opinion, Aaron Mintz had already been found guilty.

According to prosecutors, Mintz had shot and killed his wife Palma in the early hours of Super Bowl Sunday after she confronted him about having an affair. To add to the intrigue, Aaron’s mistress was someone who’d been in the spotlight herself; she worked as a publicist for the World’s Fair. She wasn’t in New Orleans on the day of Palma’s death, however; she was in France, celebrating Edwin Edwards’ victory over Dave Treen.

The affair had been well-known, at least among the Mintz’s neighbors and friends. Aaron and Palma publicly kept up appearances, but barely. Palma’s closest friends knew she had been miserable in her marriage. She was angry with Aaron, without question, but she was also clearly depressed. Palma Mintz was a beautiful, refined woman and a talented artist. However, there was a sense that she may have also felt trapped in her marriage, even before Aaron began cheating on her. The prosecution’s theory- that Aaron murdered her in a fit of rage- wasn’t inconceivable.

Ralph Meier, the neighbor who had been summoned over to the Mintz house, initially believed Palma had committed suicide, but he’d since changed his mind. Aaron’s behavior that morning was suspicious and erratic, and investigators, led by Detective John Dillman, and later prosecutors zeroed in on one key piece of evidence: The pillow that Aaron moved into another room only seconds after finding his wife’s body.

The pillow contained what appeared to be a damning clue: A bullet hole.

Aaron Mintz, according to the prosecution, must’ve used the pillow as a silencer. That had to have been why his first impulse wasn’t to call 911 but to, instead, carry the pillow away from the scene of the crime.

Because cameras were not allowed inside of the courtroom, television news stations in New Orleans hired their own sketch artists to chronicle the daily drama.

Mike Fawer opens his memoir From the Bronx to the Bayou with a chapter about the Mintz case titled “The Pillow, the Damned Pillow,” because more than anything else, the murder trial of Aaron Mintz hinged on that one piece of evidence. He understood as much from the very beginning, and it’s the reason he put together a team of forensic experts. If he could prove that Aaron did not use the pillow in the commission of his wife’s murder, then the government’s entire case would unravel.

There were several good reasons for Mike to remain hopeful. He’d actually been present at the Mintz home while the police were processing the crime scene. Although it was the first time in his life he’d ever walked into an active investigation, he could immediately tell that things were not being handled by the book. A police photographer trampled all over the floor of the master bedroom. Once Palma’s body had been taken to the coroner, they realized a shell casing was missing, and thinking it must’ve been hidden in the bedding, they began folding over the sheets, effectively destroying much of the blood spatter evidence.

It was incredibly sloppy work (the missing casing was later found lodged in the gurney used to transport Palma’s body), and it was all overseen by Detective John Dillman.

Dillman was one of the first people Mike had met when he arrived at the police station that day to meet with his new client, and he seemed already convinced that Aaron was responsible for Palma’s death. To Mike, Detective Dillman was working backward from that assumption, instead of being guided by the evidence. When you do that, you’re bound to overlook something; mistakes are almost inevitable. By the time of the trial, Mike was convinced that Dillman wasn’t exactly an exemplar of ethics. In other words, there was a good reason to believe that a team of forensic experts may uncover plenty of things that Dillman and the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office had overlooked or simply ignored in their rush for a conviction.

As Mike’s team began their own investigation into Palma’s death, it didn’t take long for them to uncover a series of facts that cut directly against the prosecution’s case.

Uptown New Orleans, especially the part that was inhabited by Aaron and Palma Mintz, wasn’t a place anyone would ever move if they wanted to become anonymous. I once heard someone describe New Orleans as “a city of 5,000 people and a million mirrors.” By the time the trial kicked off, everyone, it seemed, had their own story about the Mintz family.

Donald Mintz, Aaron’s first cousin, had been making a name for himself as a brilliant civil defense lawyer and a leader in the New Orleans Jewish community. Donald was a founder and an original partner of the law firm McGlinchey Stafford, which now ranks as one of the top firms in the nation, with offices in ten states (including Washington D.C.); he made two unsuccessful runs for Mayor of New Orleans before his sudden death in 1996 at the age of 53. And the Mintz family name had been known in the Crescent City since 1923, when Morris Mintz, along with Joseph Horwitz, founded the furniture store Hurwitz Mintz. (Aaron had owned a different, lesser-known furniture store).

Mike’s team knew how to separate gossip from fact, however, and they understood that in order to secure an acquittal, they’d need to methodically dismantle the government’s case. They began by piecing together the facts about Palma and quickly discovered that she’d long been aware that her husband Aaron was cheating on her, which seemed to weaken the theory that Aaron had murdered her after she confronted him about the affair. They also looked into the medications Palma had been taking, copious quantities of anti-depressants and anti-anxiety drugs. When they interviewed the neighborhood pharmacist who dispensed some of those medications, he revealed a shocking detail: Only a few weeks before, Palma had asked him a hypothetical: If you wanted to kill yourself, what would be the best way? The pharmacist recalled only ever being asked the question once before, by a man who would commit suicide soon after.

In addition to the pharmacist, they interviewed the couple’s two maids. One recalled seeing the pillow in a pile of laundry in Palma’s car, which seemed out of place. The other remembered something even more troubling: She noticed that a small gun had been wedged underneath Palma’s side of the bed the day before her death. The gun belonged to Palma, who had taken an interest in training herself on how to use a firearm.

But the most critical evidence they uncovered came from the tests they conducted with an identical foam pillow. If the prosecution’s theory was correct- that Aaron had held the pillow up against Palma’s head in order to muzzle the sound of the gunshot, then there should have been foam particles inside of her head. There weren’t. Moreover, because the pillow had a bullet hole in it, it’d mean that two shots, not one, had been fired, yet only one shell casing was recovered from the scene.

Based on their findings, Mike and his experts had come to a different conclusion than the prosecution: Palma Mintz had staged her own suicide to make it appear as if Aaron murdered her.

Their theory was that Palma, a few days prior, had driven to Metairie, along with her gun and the pillow from the daybed, in order to practice shooting. She’d used the pillow as a target and, once back home, surreptitiously placed it onto the bed in the master bedroom. It would be by her side when she fished her gun from beneath the mattress.

Mike Fawer being interviewed outside of the Orleans Parish Criminal Court, shortly after the jury voted to acquit Aaron Mintz.

To this day, Mike still doesn’t know whether Aaron Mintz killed his wife, but he is certain of one thing: The pillow that had been at the center of the government’s case wasn’t a factor at all. The jury agreed and voted for acquittal, 10-2.

Mike hadn’t anticipated how quickly the jury would take to render a verdict. After a day’s worth of deliberating, the judge dismissed the jury for a dinner break, and Mike and his team, along with Aaron, headed down the street for dinner. Shortly after finishing their meals, Mike learned the jury had made a decision and rushed back to the courtroom. He may have had too much to eat, he says, or too much to drink or maybe both. Either way, he wasn’t feeling well when the acquittal was announced, and as his client and the team celebrated, Mike headed back into the judge’s chambers and proceeded to vomit all over his white dress shirt.

The assembled media picked up on the pandemonium behind the scenes; one news station mistakenly reported that Mike had just suffered a heart attack. But he was fine and quickly recovered. He tossed his shirt into the trash, put back on his blue blazer, and headed outside, where the media had gathered.

It was, at the time, the most important moment in Mike’s entire legal career. He was already being hailed as the best lawyer in New Orleans, and by securing an acquittal, with the entire city looking on, Mike hadn’t just proven his skill; he’d become a local celebrity. That night, the three major local news station carried his press conference on the courthouse steps on live television, and somehow, the fact that Aaron Mintz’s star attorney appeared shirtless before the cameras was still the least interesting part of the story.

Eleven years later, Aaron Mintz received a license to operate video poker machines and shortly thereafter was accused of using his license in order to help members of the mafia conceal income earned through an illegal video poker ring. He was ultimately convicted on a lesser charge and ordered to surrender his license and pay a $15,000 fine.