Obituary: John L. Doherty / 'Colorful' attorney reinvented himself

Dec. 17, 1934 - Feb. 16, 2013

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In the midst of his career as one of Pittsburgh's top criminal attorneys, John L. Doherty developed a serious hearing loss that would force him to quit trial work. Rather than engage in self-pity, friends and family say, he reinvented himself as the first lawyer in charge of the state Supreme Court's disciplinary board for lawyers.

Mr. Doherty -- widely regarded for his legal knowledge, dapper dress and blunt manner -- died Saturday from complications of Parkinson's disease. He was 78 and lived in Banksville.

Always known as "Jack," Mr. Doherty came to prominence for his criminal attorney work in a number of high-profile cases, including his defense of numbers kingpin Tony Grosso. His legal work drew respect from prosecutors and judges alike for his above-board manner in court, where he developed a reputation as a character but always was willing to share his knowledge with younger attorneys.

His longtime partner, William Manifesto, said colleagues almost always get around to "telling Jack stories" when they get together, many of them not fit for a family newspaper. One he could share:

When Mr. Doherty was representing Grosso, he and the prosecutor had a meeting in U.S. District Court Judge Donald Ziegler's chamber to discuss the case. He asked what type of sentence Grosso might get if he pleaded guilty, and the judge refused to respond because it was improper to ask.

"Well, could you hold up a couple of fingers anyway?" Mr. Doherty asked.

J. Alan Johnson, a former U.S. attorney, said one courtroom practice Mr. Doherty used was to arrive in court with his client before a trial and wait for the prosecutor to look away. Then Mr. Doherty would walk up behind him and have his often-notorious client introduce himself with hand extended.

"Jack was the only one who ever did that," Mr. Johnson said. "He was a very colorful person, very outgoing. He knew everybody, and everybody knew him."

Whether he was questioning a witness or addressing the court, Mr. Doherty was tough and direct. But colleagues marveled that he usually could fill that combative role without making others upset.

"That was Jack -- even if he was going after a witness, he had a way about him," Mr. Johnson said. "He wasn't mean-spirited."

Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning said he sparred with Mr. Doherty for 16 years as attorneys, and then for another 12 after he took the bench. He recalled his loyalty, incredible wit and irrepressible personality

"He was the quintessential advocate -- the most perfect embodiment of what a lawyer should be," Judge Manning said. "Those of us who had the privilege to try cases with him or against him immediately recognized his pre-eminent ability to do things in a courtroom that no one else could do.

"Jack Doherty could say things in the courtroom that most lawyers would end up in jail for saying."

It was that reputation of being tough but fair that landed him with the disciplinary board in 1992 when he could no longer work in a courtroom, which he considered "home." He spent 10 years there before he retired.

"He was never angry" about having to quit trial work, said Robert J. Donahoe, another former law partner. "What he did was make a career change."

In that job, Mr. Doherty oversaw the prosecution of attorneys who engaged in unethical practices, almost the polar opposite of his former work as a defense attorney.

Although that position often is viewed in the same light as a police internal affairs officer who investigates police, colleagues said Mr. Doherty made few enemies there. He was the first attorney to hold the position, which previously had been held by an administrator.

"That's because people respected him," Mr. Donahoe said. "People understood he was doing the job that needed to be done."

Mr. Doherty made an extra effort to make sure he usually was the sharpest-looking man in any room, almost always wearing tailored suits with matching silk ties and pocket handkerchiefs and never a red hair out of place. The extra effort came from the fact he was colorblind, so when tailor Joe Orlando gave him outfits he always stored and laundered the pieces together so he wouldn't mix colors inappropriately.

"Somebody asked him one time why he was dressed so flashy when he was going to court and he said, 'It takes the jury's eyes off of my client,' " Mr. Donahoe recalled.

His wife of 49 years, Diane Doherty, said although he told her before they married that "the law was a jealous mistress," he rarely brought his work home. Away from court, he loved golf, trained for a marathon, hosted a regular Friday night pinochle game and for many years held season tickets for the Steelers.

She said he was such an avid reader that on their seven-day honeymoon he read seven books.

Mr. Doherty grew up in the Uptown neighborhood and after a stint with the Army in Germany graduated from Duquesne University. While teaching at Shady Side Academy he went to Duquesne Law School at night and won a competition when he graduated to become a clerk for U.S. District Judge Wallace S. Gourley.

Then he worked for prominent defense attorney Thomas Livingston before forming a firm with Mr. Manifesto.

He was a past president of the Allegheny County Bar Association and the Duquesne University Law Alumni Association and received the law school's Distinguished Alumni Award when it celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2011.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by a son, John F. Doherty of Banksville; a daughter, Kathleen A. Hardy of Gibsonia; a sister, Patricia Yoder of Southampton, N.Y.; and five grandchildren.

Friends will be received from 8:30 until the funeral Mass begins at 10:30 a.m. Thursday at Salandra Funeral Service Inc., Canonsburg. Interment will be at Calvary Cemetery.

The family suggests contributions to Duquesne University College of Liberal Arts (Attn.: James Miller), 600 Forbes Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15282 or The Church of the Epiphany, 184 Washington Place, Pittsburgh, PA 15219.


Ed Blazina: or 412-263-1470.


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