Obituary: James Ecker / City's most prominent defense attorney
Nov. 4, 1929 - Dec. 25, 2013
December 27, 2013 4:28 PM
James Ecker in 2006
By Rich Lord / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
James M. Ecker wasn’t afraid to walk arm-in-arm with the guilty by day, and then dedicate his evening to the most innocent.
Perhaps Pittsburgh’s most recognizable criminal defense attorney, Mr. Ecker was also the unpaid attorney for the Syria Shriners for nearly 40 years, and a volunteer for Variety, the Children’s Charity. The legal shield for those accused of showing anything but goodwill towards man, he would nonetheless visit his clients in jail on Christmas and other holidays.
“That was kind of a tall order, to go to prison on holidays,” said attorney Alexander Lindsay Jr., who worked with Mr. Ecker on numerous high-profile cases. Though Mr. Ecker was Jewish, “He said to me, ‘Isn’t that what Jesus would do?’”
Mr. Ecker, 84, died Wednesday after a short illness. He died at home with his companion of 34 years, Donna Murtha, by his side. The cause of death was not available.
“He was the most kind and generous, giving human being you’d ever meet,” said Ms. Murtha.
“In the eyes of the public, he’s been considered the most prominent criminal defense attorney in the Pittsburgh area,” said Mr. Lindsay.
The son of attorney Elmer Ecker, he originally aspired to being an FBI agent. After graduating from Dickinson Law School, though, he ended up on the other side of the courtroom.
He built his business by truly believing that everyone had the right to representation.
“If someone came to him, no matter who they were, no matter how hated they might be in the community for an alleged crime, Jim would take the case,” said Mr. Lindsay.
Even if the accusation was grisly, Mr. Ecker would treat the accused with dignity and humanity, added attorney Phil DiLucente, who worked with him for the past four years.
“What was always amazing about Jim was his sense of humor,” said Mr. DiLucente. “In the face of the most devastating cases, he would always have a great sense of humor, which would not only bring levity to us, but also would be very beneficial to the client.”
“When you tried a case with Jim, there were always little notes being passed over to you, commenting on the witness, commenting on the potential juror,” said Mr. Lindsay, adding that they were often scribbled on Mr. Ecker’s business cards, which featured his photo. “It was always hard to keep a straight face.”
Often Mr. Ecker would handle the early stages of the case, then hand off trial duties to co-counsel. Clients kept coming because of his effectiveness at getting media attention, his accessibility — and the results.
In the 1990s, for instance, he and Mr. Lindsay helped the Rev. Richard A. Rossi Jr., accused of the near-fatal beating of his wife, to negotiate a 96-day sentence, and then achieved the acquittal of Brentwood police officer John Vojtas in the death of motorist Jonny Gammage.
Countless other, less known clients saw favorable results because Mr. Ecker knew how to navigate the system, and maintained relationships with the people on the other side.
“He was always a gentleman. He never talked down to you when he cross-examined you on the stand,” said Allegheny County Sheriff Bill Mullen, who ran into Mr. Ecker when he was with the Pittsburgh police, and the two were on opposite sides of narcotics and homicide cases. “He wanted to keep on the good side of everybody. He was ultimately looking out for his clients.”
When the police obtained a warrant for an accused drug kingpin and wanted him to turn himself in, Mr. Ecker often got the job done, said the sheriff. “The criminal element kind of gravitated toward him, seeing him on TV that much.”
Mr. Ecker was one of the few local defense attorneys willing to grant detailed interviews, and even occasionally to allow his clients to answer media questions.
The resulting exposure kept the business flowing in, but occasionally got him in trouble. Last year, for example, Common Pleas Judge Edward Borkowski publicly criticized him for arranging TV interviews for former Pittsburgh police officer Adam Skweres, who faced eight felony charges including attempted rape and involuntary deviate sexual intercourse.
The case exemplified the battles Mr. Ecker fought for clients. Skweres could have faced decades in prison, but with representation from Mr. Ecker and Mr. DiLucente he entered into a plea bargain that has him serving 31⁄2 to eight years.
Results like that stemmed from a relentless work ethic, said Mr. DiLucente.
“In one day, we were in three counties, three courtrooms and two jails in two different states,” he said. “I said, ‘Jim, I’m really whipped today, I’m going home and taking a nap.’ He said, ‘I’m going out to eat, and I’ll call you afterwards.’”
While his work was grounded in facts, Mr. Ecker also had a spiritual, and even mystical side.
Pretrial, said Mr. Lindsay, “We’d hold hands with our client and pray, for strength.”
At Shriners meetings, he would address needs by slapping down a hundred dollar bill, or just paying an invoice without a word to anyone else. He always answered his phone, and his connections took his calls, too.
“He could call somebody like a Bruno Sammartino, an ex-governor of the state,” said Shriners treasurer David Gardy, “and ask if they could come over and give a half-hour motivational speech.”
Besides his work for the Shriners and Variety, Mr. Ecker was charitable in less formal ways.
“He used to drive over to the Hill District and hand out $100 bills to kids who he thought looked poor,” said Ms. Murtha.
Avoiding the golf habit that afflicts so many attorneys, he preferred to swim and read — John Grisham novels, predictably — on the Florida beach. Ms. Murtha said the frequent trips south were the source of his year-round tan.
If there was a Shriners meeting, though, he’d fly back to Pittsburgh just to be there.
“Jim,” said Ms. Murtha, “was always a man of his word.”
Mr. Ecker is survived by two daughters, Sharon Ecker and Michel Mallinson, both of Florida, and three grandchildren. He was also a father figure to Ms. Murtha’s three daughters, Shelly, Lori and Deborah.
Viewing will be held Sunday at the Greater Pittsburgh Masonic Center, 3579 Masonic Way, in Ross from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. A service will be held at 11 a.m. at the Masonic Center.