Friday, October 9, 2009

A Country Lawyer

by Jean Henry Mead

Gerry Spence celebrated his 80th birthday January 8th of this year and he’s still listed in most Wyoming phonebooks as actively practicing law in the Jackson area. I first met the infamous lawyer in the lobby of the Ramada Inn in Casper during the 1980s, following a speech he delivered to a lawyer’s convention. Wearing his trademark fringed leather jacket, he held court in the lobby with his tall Lucchese boots resting on the nearest coffee table.

Spence's boyish charm and rural expressions account, in part, for his unblemished record of winning every case he ever tried—with the exception of a televised mock trial where the defendant was a cardboard cutout. His larger-than-life presence, coupled with a voice that rivaled that of British actor Richard Burton, has mesmerized juries like no barrister before him. If he were, himself, an actor, he'd no doubt have a shelf full of Oscars.

Gerry Spence was born in Laramie, Wyoming, after midnight, in the coldest month of the year, delivered by a midwife. His father, Gerald Spence, is quoted as saying, “You could hear the window glass in the old house a rattlin’, and that boy’s been rattlin’ ever since. “ Indeed, young Gerry was a wild child despite the fact that his parents were missionaries. As a boy he memorized Sunday school Scripture, sold bouquets of flowers door-to-door, herded sheep and “prowled the brothels of the Old West before he was fifteen,” according to his autobiography, The Making of a Country Lawyer.

When he was 20, his mother took her own life, reportedly depressed over her son’s waywardness. That, according to Spence, transformed him and his views of the world, leading to his crusade to defend those unable to defend themselves. Spence served as a lawyer for insurance companies and told me that after a while, he could no longer watch people, injured in various ways, leave the courtroom with nothing because he was so good at his profession. It was then, he said, that he decided to spend his life defending those people against the insurance companies and giant corporations. The multi-million dollar Karen Silkwood case against Kerr-McGee was the one that make him famous.

But before his fame and fortune, Spence initially flunked his bar exam and later began his career as the youngest county prosecuting attorney in the country in his home state of Wyoming. During that time he battled alcoholism, a divorce and angry citizens who didn’t want him shutting down all the little yellow houses of prostitution in Fremont County.

One of his most publicized cases was that of Ed Cantrell, a veteran police officer who had never killed anyone during his long career, but was charged with killing an undercover agent in the backseat of his patrol car. Everyone thought Cantrell was guilty but Spence took the case and won an acquittal. Before that happened, he arranged for me to interview Ed Cantrell, which didn’t make me popular with Wyoming residents. As it turned out, I interviewed Cantrell in his double car garage with his family present. I wasn’t sure of his innocence when I arrived, but four hours later I left convinced that Cantrell thought he was shooting in self defense. The jury thought so as well after only two hours of deliberation.

Spence has since written a number of books, including his How to Argue and Win Every Time. He also published a collector’s volume of his outstanding black and white photographs which he developed in his own darkroom. The large book includes samples of his poetry and occupies a special place in my own home library.


Anonymous said...

Interesting article, Jean. I think my brother, now a judge, was at that lawyers convention in Wyoming. I'm a little hazy on the year, but I remember he attended a convention especially to meet Spence.

Pat Browning

Jean Henry Mead said...

I'm also a little hazy on the year but I think it was 1981, while I was inteviewing well known Wyomingites for my first book. I gave him and his wife a ride to the airport and we first stopped at a sporting goods store so that he could buy some running shoes. He's very unpretentious and likeable.

Sheila Deeth said...

This was fascinating. Thanks for the window on a really interesting life.

Mark W. Danielson said...

Thanks for another great interview, Jean. Of course lawyers and politicians are some of our best actors. Sometimes it even works the other way around.