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Justice scarce, says high-profile attorney

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Gerry Spence often represents the poor and powerless.

Gerry Spence often represents the poor and powerless.

There are probably few attorneys in the country as famous as Gerry Spence. He has tried many high-profile cases, but he has also spent a great deal of his time representing the poor and the powerless.

During a telephone interview from his home in Jackson Hole, Wyo., he talked about his new book, "The Smoking Gun: Day by Day Through a Shocking Murder Trial with Gerry Spence," an extensive account of his traumatic, lengthy defense of Sandy Jones, an Oregon woman accused with her teenage son of murdering a neighbor.

"This was the case of a poor woman who had no funds, and nobody cared about her case," said Spence. "This is the kind of case that goes on year after year unobserved. It represents the kind of hopeless situation most people face. Any law student could benefit by studying it.

"The truth is that the average American cannot get justice in the criminal courts of this country. Something close to 90 percent of all the cases tried in criminal courts in this country are judged guilty. The power of the state is so mammoth and the accused have so few assets that they usually end up with public defenders who are often untrained."

According to Spence, on the same day O.J. Simpson, a man of wealth, was acquitted for the murder of his wife, there was another man "just down the hall who was convicted of murder outright in less than a week."

Spence represented Sandy Jones pro bono, but his celebrity gave him difficulties other attorneys would not face. "The judges would say, 'He is not going to get away with anything in this courtroom!'

The truth is, I always go into court fully prepared. I care about my client, and I try to tell the truth. I try to be open and real and credible. It's not a matter of magic. I always say to myself, walking into a courtroom, 'Be real, Gerry. Be yourself!' A courtroom is a fearsome place and the power of the judge is great."

This past week at his ranch, Spence has been conducting an annual judicial college, open to all judges, in which "we attempt to give them the chance to realize that they too are human beings. Some of the faculty are lawyers and others judges, and all offer their time free of charge."

Spence also sponsors a trial lawyers college, three weeks long. "We only take lawyers who represent people. We don't take government lawyers or prosecutors. They're little people's lawyers. We teach them how to win in the courtroom by being their unique selves."

Law schools produce too many lawyers who speak in "stilted legalese no one cares about with the humanness taken away," said Spence. "They get it from academic, pedantic drones who couldn't try a case if they wanted to. We try to un-teach those who come."

He also believes that "Too often people are shuttled through a courtroom like cattle through chutes." He respects Judge Harl Haas, the man who presided over the Jones case at the end, and Spence dedicated his book to him. "He was tough but he was also patient and kind." He believes there are a number of other judges in the country who have the same good qualities.

Yet Spence also favors without question the jury trial. "Judges get immune to the human condition after seeing so much suffering in a courtroom. Their sense of justice gets lost when they are faced with huge dockets. I believe that a group of people, who are reasonably solid citizens, has more collective intelligence than the single most intelligent person in the universe. I've never tried a case where a juror didn't tell me about something in the case I overlooked. They understand things mostly we don't understand. It takes skill to choose a good jury — but once it is chosen there is no judge who can give as just a result."

Spence is currently trying another case in Arizona (also pro bono) on behalf of a young Hispanic man accused of murder. "I'm busier than I was when I was 40. My work is my play. Sundays are the same as Mondays. I can't imagine giving up what I'm doing to go play golf with some jerk from a bank or a corporation."

He said he comes alive in the courtroom. And he is known to be eloquent and persuasive. "It's like two warriors in a boxing ring. You talk to a boxer and he can't remember what he did, really. He was in a different realm. A subconscious power took over to help him get victory. So it is when you make a public speech.

"But in a courtroom, where someone's life is at stake, the power I need is provided from sources I can't define. We muster our forces and wonderful things often happen. The prerequisite is that you have a deep caring for your client."

If you go …

What: Gerry Spence book signing

Where: Sam Weller's Zions Bookstore, 254 S. Main

When: Tuesday, 5 p.m.

How much : Free

Phone: 328-2586


E-MAIL: dennis@desnews.com