High-Style Defense in High-Profile Trials : Courts: Attorney Jack Earley says he wins empathy for clients, many accused of capital crimes, by making their stories compelling to jurors. At times he is theatrical, at times the wily bumbler.
In the middle of a hushed courtroom, Irvine attorney Jack Earley held up a picture of what appeared to be the all-American family: A beaming father and mother with their two young daughters and two young sons.
With the jury looking on attentively, he suddenly raised the framed photograph above his head and slammed it on the lectern, shattering the glass and drawing gasps and looks of horror from spectators and even the judge.
“This is the family that Dan Broderick destroyed,” Earley exclaimed, failing to mention that medical malpractice lawyer Daniel T. Broderick III was the dead victim, while Betty, his ex-wife, was the one on trial for first-degree murder in a case that made Court TV a staple of the nation’s cable companies.
All in a day’s work for Earley, 46, who is one of the top criminal defense attorneys in Orange County, his home for 16 years. He also has a long track record in Los Angeles, Riverside and San Diego, where onetime La Jolla socialite Betty Broderick was tried twice for fatally shooting her former husband and his new wife as they lay in bed.
Earley’s clients have included not only Broderick--convicted of second-degree murder in a retrial after a hung jury the first time--but also civil plaintiff Kim Springer, the Dana Point postal worker stalked by accused killer Mark Richard Hilbun; Janet Greene, a former teacher of the year in Fullerton accused of murdering her lesbian lover, and Linda Ricchio, San Diego’s “fatal attraction” slayer who killed her ex-boyfriend but eluded the death penalty.
Out of 48 homicide cases in a career spanning two decades, most of Earley’s clients have been women, which is how he prefers it.
“If someone gave me a test . . . (the results) would probably come up ‘feminist,’ ” said Earley, who lives in Laguna Beach with his wife, Gail, and sons Bryan, 10, and Kyle, 8.
For whatever reason, colleagues say Earley works well with women, whether they’re paying him to represent them or listening from the jury box.
“He has an extraordinarily fine-tuned sense for what matters in a case,” said Elisabeth Semel, past president of California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, the state’s criminal defense bar. “He always sees what’s important, what the jury’s going to care about. He’s not the most cerebral, intellectual kind of lawyer, but has a way of speaking that helps jurors really understand. He’s also very persuasive.”
Earley’s friends and even his adversaries marvel at his unorthodox style, which comes across as a curious mix of Mr. Magoo and Peter Falk’s Columbo. However unconventional, it seems to work, especially with juries, who appear to share an Everyman’s rapport with Earley.
He moved with his Jewish mother and Irish Catholic father from Virginia (where he was born) to Connecticut to Arizona, then back to Connecticut and back to Arizona, where he attended three different high schools before graduating in California.
As a boy, he dreamed of being a writer, never a lawyer. A graduate of Cal State Long Beach, Earley obtained a degree from Loyola Law School in Los Angeles--more, he said, out of the need to have something to do for three years than a desire to pursue a lifetime of arguing cases in a courtroom.
“At job interviews back then, everyone was wearing white shirts, skinny ties and black shoes, while I had long hair and wasn’t about to do that ,” said Earley, who today favors conservatively tailored suits, loafers and button-down shirts with print ties.
Semel said that despite defending numerous clients who could have received the death penalty, Earley has managed to keep all of them off Death Row, including the first person tried for capital murder after California reopened the door to the gas chamber in 1977.
It wasn’t long before then that Earley’s career got its start. While Earley was visiting friends in Riverside, a drunk driver careened into his car, rolling it over three times and putting him in the hospital.
Laid up with no idea of what the future held in store--he had a law degree but only a vague idea of the path he wanted to follow--he took a friend’s suggestion to work with the public defender.
Since then, he’s been a full-time lawyer without interruption, one whose cases are nothing if not compelling:
* Broderick gained the most notoriety, leading to three books and two made-for-television movies, in addition to gavel-to-gavel coverage on Court TV.
* In a trial scheduled for Sept. 20 in West Covina, Earley is representing Janet Greene, 51, whom Glendora police accuse of killing her former companion, Loretta (Ret) Coller, 62, and wounding the woman Greene considered her rival in a love triangle, Martha Pereida, 49.
Coller and Greene once taught together at Sunny Hills High School in Fullerton, where Greene was teacher of the year in 1988.
* In “Until the Twelfth of Never,” her book about the Broderick case, author Bella Stumbo describes Earley’s other clients as ranging from “a frightened old lady who shot wildly into the darkness of her home, killing a teen-age burglar, to some of the most depraved examples of humanity imaginable, such as the rejected boyfriend who threw acid on his former girlfriend before dismembering her; another spurned lover who took murderous revenge not on the girlfriend but on her 7-year-old son instead, beating him to death; and the daughter who hired a couple of teen-agers to kill her aging father for his insurance.”
The common thread running through the repertoire, Earley said, is his attempt to win empathy from a jury by crafting a story, much in the way a novelist would.
“For some people, doing a trial is very A-B-C-D-E,” he said. “Jurors don’t know what’s important or what they should consider. So it’s more like painting a picture or writing a book. A book should leave you with an impression. A picture should. A trial should.”
Earley said he shattered the glass in the picture frame at the start of the Broderick trial to make a lasting impression, one that would haunt jurors for weeks to come.
“You have to let them know there’s going to be major issues they have to deal with. Unless they let go of the reserve, they’re not going to connect to it,” he said. “It’s like the gun at the start of a race. It lets them know they’re not going to get off easy . . . they can’t just daydream through a trial.”
Nevertheless, prosecutors would often have them do that, Earley said.
“For D.A.'s to be successful, they want jurors to be unemotional and detached and very matter-of-fact. But my view is more humanistic. Life is not robotic, and people are not predictable.
“Jurors (are) dragged kicking and screaming into courtrooms, so why would they want to go through an emotional, gut-wrenching decision if they can avoid it with a dry, matter-of-fact experience?”
Earley said some of his clients have been legally insane and others plainly guilty--sad, sick creatures unable to function in a world without bars. But most, he said, are mere victims of life itself, otherwise well-meaning souls whose despair and desperation led them to commit the unthinkable.
He sees many, if not most, criminal defendants as good people often led awry by a simple twist of fate.
Earley’s colleagues say his talent for making a juror understand such factors is complemented by a Columbo-like quality of appearing confused, mixed with a dry sense of humor that even some of his closest friends say borders on the macabre.
Prosecutor Kerry Wells, Earley’s adversary in the Broderick trials, with whom he often clashed in open court, suggested to jurors in closing arguments that his seeming incoherence was calculated to blur the horrors of his client’s actions.
Others say it’s no act. John Cotsirilos, a fellow criminal defense attorney who calls Earley his best friend, said one of Earley’s most riveting closing arguments came in a moment of panic--after he left his notes at home, in the drawer by his bed.
Cotsirilos said Earley’s biggest achievement in the Broderick trial was averting a first-degree murder conviction. Broderick stole into her ex-husband’s mansion in the pre-dawn darkness of Nov. 5, 1989, and killed him and his new wife, Linda Kolkena Broderick--the younger woman he had left her for--with five shots from a .38-caliber revolver.
“You couldn’t have drawn a clearer map of premeditation,” Cotsirilos said.
In the Ricchio “fatal attraction” trial in San Diego County, Earley used a yo-yo to illustrate how Ron Ruse, the former boyfriend Ricchio shot to death, would let her go, let her back into his life and let her ago again.
But Susan Fisher, the older sister of the victim, said that Earley’s symbolism--and much of what he argued in court--was inaccurate.
“I think that Earley and for that matter defense attorneys in general are not necessarily looking for the truth,” Fisher said. “Rather, they’re more involved with trying to cast doubt on the victim’s character.
“I think it’s unfortunate that they’re willing to sacrifice the reputation of the victim and the feelings of the victim’s family just to try to get somebody off who’s obviously guilty.
“With the yo-yo, he implied that my brother would let her go and bring her back, which had nothing to do with the truth. It was a tactic, designed merely to affect the jury. She was stalking him. Earley managed to convince two jurors that she wasn’t lying in wait. And now she’s in prison, married to her former prison guard.”
Earley is often asked how he can represent anyone who has ended another person’s life by violence--for whatever reason. But often, he said, the whys are both compelling and understandable, as is a client’s need to survive.
“If you were a country looking at annihilation and permanent enslavement, wouldn’t you put every resource into fighting that off?” he asked. “That’s what a (murder) conviction means--total enslavement for the rest of your life. It’s a war for your life.”