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R.I.P., Richard Egbert

 

Richard Egbert, the quintessential super-tough defense lawyer, has died at age 61. Over the years, he represented a number of clients in Rhode Island, including, of course, Buddy Cianci during his Plunder Dome trial in 2002.

As part of a profile written before the trial, I met with Egbert in his Boston office and gleaned a telling detail that wound up in Mike Stanton's The Prince of Providence.

A small plaque with a Latin inscription, a gift from a client charged in a large bank fraud case in western Massachusetts, seems inconspicuous among the many nautically themed paintings in Richard M. Egbert's office on the eighteenth floor of a building in Boston's financial district. But unlike the demure surroundings, the phrase -- which translates to, "Act like a Sicilian and think like a Jew" -- bluntly cuts to the combination of aggression and shrewd intelligence for which Egbert is known. "After he was acquitted, he sent me that, apparently as what he thought of me," the defense lawyer notes dryly. "Sometimes I'm not sure how to take it, but I think it was meant as a compliment."

Known as one of the best practitioners of his kind in the Northeast, Egbert shuns the limelight embraced by many lawyers in his $525-per-hour bracket. As someone who came of age during the protests of the late '60s, his work is informed by a fierce desire to help accused individuals counterbalance the power and potential excesses of government.

Here's a rundown on some of Egbert's local work:

Egbert has repeatedly returned to Rhode Island over the years, representing such figures as former governor Edward DiPrete, the late North Providence Mayor Sal Mancini, mobster Frank "Bobo" Marrapese, and former state Supreme Court chief justice Joseph Bevilacqua. He had been hired by the City of Providence to fight a $20 million wrongful death-civil rights claim filed on behalf of Leisa Young, the mother of Cornel Young Jr., the black Providence police officer who was fatally shot by two colleagues in January 2000. Egbert also represented Cianci in a civil suit by Christopher Ise, a city planner who alleges that he paid a $5000 bribe to get his job.

His skills as a defender:

Although federal prosecutors cited his potential conflicts in unsuccessfully attempting to remove Egbert from the case, his respected skills as a relentless digger and ferocious cross-examiner of government witnesses certainly don't make him the most desirable of opponents.

"He is the single finest trial lawyer I've ever seen," says Joseph J. Balliro Sr., a Boston lawyer who was successfully defended by Egbert about 12 years ago in a case involving allegations of federal tax violations. "He's got a tremendous amount of natural ability that he implements with a great deal of hard work. He's the most exacting, prepared lawyer I've ever met and he gets fiercely involved in his client's case. Like a pit bull, he doesn't let go. He keeps shaking until he gets what he wants. He's a terror in the courtroom, in a very professional way."

The DiPrete defense is a case in point. Although DiPrete, who pleaded guilty in 1998 to 18 counts of bribery, racketeering, and extortion, is hardly a sympathetic figure, Egbert helped to unearth evidence of prosecutorial misconduct -- a development that led to the throwing out of the state's initial case, and, in the end, a relatively light one-year sentence for the disgraced former governor.

His background and what drove him:

THE CONSTRUCTION of a new skyscraper, a reflection of Boston's ongoing real estate boom, partially obscures the southeastern view from Egbert's office, but he can still look in the direction of Mattapan, once a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, where he spent his early childhood before moving with his family to the suburb of Newton. Although he would go on to become one of the foremost criminal-defense lawyers in the region, Egbert didn't deliberately set his sights on the legal profession at an early age. "It just seemed to be what I wanted to do. I didn't have any high-minded thoughts about it at the time," he says. "As I got into it, I just came to realize that there is no better stuff to do than to represent people whom the government is accusing of a crime."

Egbert's parents, Manny, a garment worker, and Annette, a housewife, traced their roots to Austria, and he was raised on relatives' stories of how the Nazis came to power and the resulting genocide of millions of Jews and others. Such stories were still fresh in his mind when Egbert's tenure as an undergraduate at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in the late '60s coincided with swelling protests of the Vietnam War and the duplicity of the Nixon administration. The nexus was instrumental, he says, in fostering a sense that the government needed to have people who were going to stand up to it.

In talking about himself, Egbert is prone to speaking in generalities. But pressed about the events that shaped his outlook, he says, "The day that I saw my best friend's head split open by a baton when he was demonstrating peacefully against the war is a memory that I won't forget. That was the government out of control on its own citizens, not a foreign policy decision about whether or not they should or should not be in Vietnam. That was the stuff that I only thought you would see in watching a movie about someplace else." (The friend received stitches and recovered.)

Considering this, perhaps it's not surprising that Egbert calls criminal-defense "the best part of the practice of law, where you get a chance to affect peoples' lives and not worry about money and those kinds of fights, and you get to stand between the government a bit and people." Sounding not unlike a libertarian, he says, "I think we have too many rules. I think the government is an extremely powerful organization that ought to take particular precautions in not abusing that power. If I can be of help in curbing that in some way, I like it."

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