Try it. Who knows, you may even like it.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

A legacy that needs no defense

By Dick Hirsch

My plan was to try to sneak in among a bunch of lawyers to attend one of those noonday lectures at which attorneys can earn Continuing Legal Education credits to meet state requirements.

I’ve always been relieved that there are no similar requirements for columnists, some program of Continuing Journalism Education. So why would I be so determined to spend an hour or more listening to a talk by a retired lawyer discussing such issues as developing a strategy for the defense, selecting a jury and examining witnesses, among other things?

Simple. Because the speaker was to be John W. Condon Jr., one of the cleverest, most colorful and successful criminal defense lawyers to practice in Western New York in the last 50 years. As it promised in the promotional mailer sent to attorneys:

“Condon has never been known to disappoint an audience.”

True. But there is always a first time. Condon, 86, and his wife, Joan, 79, were both killed last week in a two car collision in Hamburg.

I knew him a long time, first as a reporter and then as a consultant handling some writing assignments for him. I was captivated by his personality, by his unpretentious manner and by his demand for the facts, whether it related to gathering evidence for the defense or making a dinner reservation.

“Have you eaten there before?” he would ask. “What did you have? How was the service? Was it noisy.” And then came the clincher: “Would you go back?”

He didn’t enjoy noisy restaurants because he had a hearing problem which worsened over the years until he finally needed hearing aids in both ears. But he often made that disability a part of his courtroom behavior. When cross-examining a witness and his question resulted in a response that was damaging to the prosecution, he often feigned confusion, cupping his hand behind an ear and explaining:

“I’m sorry. I have a hearing problem. Could you please repeat that?” It was a favorite ploy and it enabled the jury to hear the testimony not once but twice. Condon was a convincing advocate, a skilled interrogator, a diminutive figure who seemed most comfortable in front of a jury. He was disarming, perhaps because he didn’t bluster. He recognized that prosecutors had many more weapons at their disposal than defense lawyers, but he made it his strategy to overcome that advantage with complete command of the facts and charming guile. He studied the facts of the case, was well-prepared, and was rarely surprised in the courtroom.

Condon devoted much of his career to the defense of reputed mobsters, and accused thieves, drug dealers and murderers. One client and his associates, aware that authorities might be monitoring their phones, adopted nicknames to try to conceal their identities. They referred to Condon as “Pluggie,” a reference to his hearing aids. He was always comfortable discussing his work, patiently explaining to those who asked the guarantees of the Constitution, emphasizing that any person accused of a crime deserved to be well represented.

He didn’t go into retirement with much enthusiasm. He would have preferred to remain in the game, but his hearing loss was too great a handicap. He still lectured at the UB Law School and taught a course a few years ago in criminal defense. It was oversubscribed. He also was a frequent lecturer at the Cardozo School of Law in New York, and often teamed with Barry Scheck, the nationally known attorney who founded the Innocence Project.

Condon tried wintering in Florida and it worked for awhile. An Irish Catholic, he owned a condo in a development where many of the other residents were Jewish. In his typical broadly inquisitive fashion, he began attending synagogue services, “just to learn what it’s all about.”

He schooled a generation of defense lawyers with on the job training. One, Joseph Sedita, observed: “From John I learned that an advocate can never be satisfied with what he thinks he knows because there is a big difference between that and what he needs to know.”

Said Mike Taheri, his last partner: “You had to be at the top of your game all the time when you worked with John. He was a great lawyer but a better person.”

Taheri and Sedita are among those who either trained with or collaborated with John Condon. Others are men like Joseph LaTona, Rodney Personius and Terry Connors. They are all Condon disciples and they provide a unique legacy.


Post a Comment

<< Home