Jim Ecker knew his job well, in spite of us

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When you think about it, dying on any day other than Christmas or the Fourth of July just wouldn't have been appropriate for defense attorney James M. Ecker.

Though he succumbed to natural causes at 84, Jimmy Ecker wasn't about to check out on one of the hundreds of days available to the rest of us.

Years from now, when his legend is recounted with even more embellishment and affection than it was in the immediate aftermath of his death, people will marvel at how dapper a dresser he was and how his thick mane of perfectly coifed white hair was as much his calling card as it was Andy Warhol's, though Mr. Ecker's was real -- or was it? (I suspect every strand of hair on his perpetually tanned body was real.)

At least once a year, we'd get together at one of his favorite watering holes Downtown to shoot the breeze. I enjoyed his company even though his list of clients made me cringe. Mr. Ecker happily represented such notorious figures as Brentwood police Officer John Vojtas and accused wife batterer Rev. Richard Rossi.

I'd tease him by confessing that whenever I saw him on the evening news accompanying a sullen defendant during a perp walk, I always assumed that his client was guilty. He'd laugh and say I might feel differently if, God forbid, I ever had need of his services. He never indicated that I'd get much of a discount for his services, either.

For years, Mr. Ecker would participate in a mock press conference in my introduction-to-journalism class at Chatham University. The students would prep for it by reading about his most notorious cases in advance. Inevitably, one or two students would jettison any notion of objectivity and ask him how he was able to sleep at night knowing that he and his partners often circumvented true justice by relying on sophistry and dumb juries.

Mr. Ecker's answer was never anything less than high-minded. He reminded the students that every citizen had a constitutional right to the presumption of innocence and to the best defense a lawyer serving as a trained officer of the court could provide. He said his personal feelings about a client were always secondary and that a vigorous defense shouldn't depend on the vagaries of a popularity contest.

Once, in an unusually contentious class, several students triple-teamed Jimmy with questions about how far he was willing to take the principle that everyone deserves a vigorous defense in court. This was after reading about how the pastor's wife recanted her original testimony of spousal assault, claiming instead that an assailant supernaturally impersonated her husband.

Mr. Ecker never wavered under their hostile questioning, even as the hypothetical scenarios escalated all the way up to Adolf Hitler. I think the only exception he made that evening was for child pornographers, adding that even they deserved a defense, but that he wouldn't be the best person to do it.

"On some level, I have to believe in my client, too," he said.

Though I was mortified that the mock press conference degenerated into an emotional free-for-all, Mr. Ecker wasn't bothered a bit. He passed out business cards bearing his picture and assured the students that one day they or a loved one would see the value in what he was doing. Several students continued peppering him with skeptical questions after class, delighting him to no end. He shared stories about even worse clients he had helped avoid harsh sentences.

The next day, Mr. Ecker called to thank me for a "stimulating intellectual workout" with the students and volunteered to do it again. I asked him if he minded being thought of as a villain, and as a lawyer representing villains, by so many liberal-minded students. He laughed.

"I've been able to persuade more hostile juries than your students" he said.

"Beyond the specifics of the culpability of the client, there's a much larger interest involved," said another defense attorney, Robert Del Greco, musing on the arc of Jimmy Ecker's career. "Criminal defense lawyers understand that interest and the importance of preserving constitutional rights and making the government prove its case. Without criminal defense lawyers, we would gradually slip into government overreach and tyranny."

Lots of people who would otherwise have nothing to do with each other are mourning the passing of Jimmy Ecker this Christmas week. He may have stood up for bad and obviously guilty people, but someone had to.

Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1631 or on Twitter @TonyNormanPG.

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