MaryAnn DiBari: Remarkable woman lent aid and comfort to many

April 4, 2015

By Jane Dove

April 3, 2015

Beloved poet Emily Dickinson once wrote, “If I can ease one heart from breaking, I shall not have lived in vain.”

Putting those words into action hundreds of times over the course of her career as a defense attorney, MaryAnn DiBari of Pound Ridge was dedicated to reaching out to help those who found themselves lost in the grip of the legal system, with nowhere to turn.

All of the legal assistance DiBari provided over the years was at no cost to her clients.

She never accepted a single fee for any of the cases she defended.

In an era where the legal profession has lost some luster, DiBari re-burnished its image, setting an example of old-fashioned honesty, compassion, and determination and an ethical compass admired by many and emulated by only a few. She maintained a busy private practice, working out of her home office at 105 Cross Pond Road.

A colleague of DiBari summed up the feelings of many when speaking to her son Leonard one day: “Having a cup of coffee with your mother is a religious experience,” he said. “There is no one like her.”

DiBari died on March 21 after a long and valiant battle with breast cancer. More than 600 mourners attended her standing-room-only funeral at St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Ridgefield, Conn.

Although she is remembered for some high-profile legal victories, including helping to win the release of the wrongfully convicted Fernando Bermudez after he spent 18 years behind bars, DiBari is equally well-known for lending a helping hand to smaller issues just as important to those enmeshed in them.

Starting out

The Ledger sat down with several members of the DiBari family in their gracious home this past Monday to discuss MaryAnn and what she meant to them and those she helped.

MaryAnn DiBari was born MaryAnn Saldino in Brooklyn on June 19, 1938. She attended local schools and met her husband, Jack, while attending Grover Cleveland High School in Queens. But the sweethearts broke up briefly when MaryAnn entered the convent for two years. After discovering a religious vocation was not for her, she left the convent and married Jack three months later, in 1961.

The young couple settled into an apartment in Queens and children came quickly and plentifully: Katrina, Jacqueline, Leonard, Jennifer, Lisa, and Lara all arrived within a span of nine years.

Husband Jack operated a successful trucking and warehousing business.

DiBari was possessed of a keen intellect and graduated from Hunter College before her marriage.

As the children grew older, she obtained a master’s degree in literature. She spoke several languages, including Italian, Latin, Hebrew, and Russian, and was skilled in the art of debate and always focused on ethics. She later was awarded her law degree by Pace University and established her own legal practice, after a very brief experience as a prosecutor for New York City, which was not at all to her liking.

“MaryAnn was always a scholar,” her husband, Jack, said proudly. “Before getting into law she taught Latin and Greek and got master’s degrees in Russian literature and philosophy.”

DiBari was 50 when she graduated from law school and she quickly passed the bar in Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, and Washington, D.C.

As to her very first job as a prosecutor in New York City, her husband said that from the first case, she didn’t like it. “She quit after one week and decided to become a defender and opened her own practice in Pound Ridge, working out of her home office as a criminal defense attorney. The more needy the individual and the tougher the case, the more she was drawn to it.”

Jack DiBari said his business, which he now runs with son Leonard, was prospering and added, “I was happy to support what I called ‘her law habit.’ We all saw the good she was doing, defending cases from murder to felonies down to misdemeanors. And I shouldn’t say she was never paid. One client gave her five kosher chickens at the conclusion of the case.”

High profile

At least two of DiBari’s cases went high-profile, generating lots of media attention, even though they were very different in nature.

The first battle began in 1996, when DiBari and her associate, Ceil DiNozzi, learned from a group of parents that authorities were allowing students in Bedford schools to play a new card activity game, Magic, The Gathering. Based on strategy, the game is in the same genre as Dungeons and Dragons. This led the two attorneys to take a closer look at a number of school practices they found startling; visits by a yogi who taught meditation; activities that involved Aztec gods and Hindu deities; a class on crystals; a lesson on Druid rituals; a tape with Tao Indian invocations; occult “worry” dolls; a visit by a local psychic; and drumbeat, pagan style rituals to Mother Earth.

The two attorneys battled the school district in federal District Court, where a verdict held that the school district violated students’ First Amendment rights to religious freedom by allowing schools to engage in such activities. Later revelations included the discovery of satanic altars in the woods, animal bones, and carvings and inscriptions on the trees all around. Other alleged findings were even more gruesome. But that original decision was overturned on appeal, prompting another round of legal battling the attorneys hoped would one day reach the Supreme Court.

More typical of the kind of case DiBari thrived on was that of Bronx resident Fernando Bermudez, jailed 18 years for a downtown murder he always insisted he didn’t commit.

Bermudez was 22 when he was convicted in 1991 of murdering a teen outside a nightclub in New York City. The most damning evidence against him was his photo, misidentified by five teenage witnesses.

The youngsters who put him behind bars later recanted, saying that prosecutors and police had pressured them into identifying Bermudez as the killer. There was no forensic evidence of any kind, including DNA, to prove the allegations.

Bermudez’s pro bono attorneys, including DiBari, argued he was the victim of mistaken identification after his photo was selected. When the witnesses eventually recanted, the case drew widespread attention in the legal and justice community, including an amicus brief from the Innocence Project, a front-page story in the New York Times, coverage in the Latino press, an hourlong Court TV program titled The Wrong Man: A Case of Mistaken Identity, and the cover of a book titled Innocent: Inside Wrongful Conviction Cases.

Bermudez was totally exonerated of the crime in 2010 and has filed a $30-million lawsuit against the city and state of New York. At the time of his release, DiBari said that “the trial was totally lopsided. The stories the witnesses gave did not make sense; they were inconsistent with one another.”

Bermudez attended DiBari’s funeral services last week but could not be reached by The Ledger for comment.

Shortly after helping to win the Bermudez case, DiBari was stricken with cancer but continued to work on behalf of the disadvantaged when her strength and stamina permitted.

One of a kind

Her friend Danny Lopez summed up the feelings of many.

“There will never be anyone like her ever again,” he said. “She was one of a kind. My brother was incarcerated at Elmira and she went up to see him and did not bat and eye in that place. This beautiful little blond. She wouldn’t even take gas money. She got my brother out and she did it from the heart. She always did all she could to help everyone she could.”

Now that DiBari is gone, her family said they were grateful to have had her for so long.

“We are a large and close-knit group and will continue to pull together,” said her husband. “She and I now have 26 grandchildren and one great-grandchild. She is still here with us in a very big way, and we appreciated her every single day of our lives.”

Originally published by The Lewisboro Ledger