Obituary: Shelley J. Stark / Selfless public defender devoted to law and motherhood

Aug. 31, 1948 - June 24, 2013


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Former federal public defender Shelley Stark used to tell a story that her socialist grandfather once told her as they stood in a garden together that she "needed to be a poor person's lawyer."

It bred in her a "strong social conscience" that led to a lifetime commitment.

"It was in her bones," said her husband, Robert Dealy. "She was extraordinarily devoted -- on theoretical and philosophical grounds -- to her work. She loved defending the downtrodden."

Ms. Stark was appointed the federal public defender for the Western District of Pennsylvania in 1995, and served in that capacity until 2001 when a stroke left her unable to work.

She and her husband remained in Pittsburgh for several years, but later moved to New Haven, Conn.

Earlier this month, Ms. Stark fell at her home and struck her head. She never regained consciousness and died Monday in hospice care in Wallingford, Conn.

She was 64.

Ms. Stark spent her entire legal career doing just as her grandfather instructed. She worked for the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia and for the King County Public Defender Association in Seattle before moving back to Pittsburgh in 1982 and joining the Allegheny County Public Defender's office in its appellate division.

She also taught law at the University of Pittsburgh and was a visiting instructor each year in trial advocacy at Harvard.

Among her most famous cases was that of Carol Stonehouse, a Pittsburgh police officer who was convicted of killing her boyfriend in 1983.

Ms. Stark represented Ms. Stonehouse on appeal and won. The state Supreme Court ordered a new trial, saying the officer could use as a defense that she was a battered woman. Ms. Stonehouse was acquitted at a nonjury trial in 1990.

Once, when Ms. Stark was jogging in Schenley Park, someone broke into her old Volvo and stole her coat.

The thief was caught, and the day he went to court, his lawyer shouted at him: "Do you know who you robbed? You robbed Robin Hood."

Ms. Stark asked that the charges be dropped, and they were.

"She didn't like the idea of anybody going to jail or being penalized," Dr. Dealy said.

Caroline Roberto, who considered Ms. Stark a mentor and close friend, said the woman was selfless with her clients and her time, spending hours on the phone with her working on cases.

"She would drop everything if I was preparing for trial," Ms. Roberto said. "It was like she was privately tutoring me."

She noted that Ms. Stark never became cynical about the practice of law or her repeat clients.

Claudia Davidson, who worked with Ms. Stark at the Allegheny County Public Defender's office, said that was part of the woman's personality.

"She gave tirelessly to that. It was almost like that was her purpose on Earth," Ms. Davidson said. "She had this incredible generosity of herself -- spiritually, emotionally, intellectually."

Ms. Roberto called Ms. Stark "profoundly intense."

Dr. Dealy described her as "very animated, passionate about her politics and slightly out of control."

Ms. Stark first met her husband through mutual friends in Philadelphia in the early 1970s. They began dating later as he attended medical school in Montreal.

The two took a trip camping in the mountains, and after spending three weeks together in a tent at 10,000 feet, decided to get married, said Dr. Dealy, a psychiatrist.

They were married by a justice of the peace at National Elk Refuge in Jackson, Wyo. In 2007, with their children present, they went back to renew their vows.

Dr. Dealy called his wife a devoted mother who made it home to prepare delicious meals like chicken Kiev for their children and help get them to bed, before returning to work on her legal briefs until the early hours of the morning.

Ms. Stark had a type of love-hate relationship with Yale. The New Haven school didn't accept women when she was heading off to college, so she was mad at the school, Dr. Dealy said.

But just about the time Ms. Stark had the stroke, their son, Andrew, was getting ready to leave for the Ivy League school. The stroke made him worry about being far away.

The first full sentence Ms. Stark spoke after the stroke, Dr. Dealy said, was " 'Andrew, go to Yale.' "

After the stroke, Dr. Dealy said his wife was frustrated by her inability to speak as well as she had before. Her right arm was paralyzed, and she had difficulty walking.

Although initially Ms. Stark hoped to return to work, she never could.

"It was such a part of her personality -- this need to work for the poor -- that it was devastating," he said.

Because of her frustration of often running into her former colleagues and fellow attorneys in Pittsburgh but not being able to practice law anymore, the couple decided to move to New Haven.

In the last few years, Dr. Dealy said, his wife had become happy there, walking throughout the flat city, enjoying the restaurants, as well as her time as a grandmother to grandsons, Eli and Noah.

In addition to her husband, Ms. Stark is survived by three children, Katie and Andrew Dealy of Chicago and Rebecca Dealy of New York City; two brothers, Frank Stark of Treasure Island, Fla. and Karl Stark of Elkins Park, Pa.; two sisters, Nina Stark Slapnik of Chevy Chase, Md., and Julie Stark, of Loveland, Ohio; and two grandchildren.

Arrangements are being handled by New Haven Funeral Service. A private memorial service will be held in Pittsburgh. The family suggests memorial donations to the "Civil Law Project" at the Women's Center & Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh, P.O. Box 9024, Pittsburgh, PA 15224.

obituaries

Paula Reed Ward: pward@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620.


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