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The Life and Career of Gerry Spence: Author, The Making of a Country Lawyer
by Megan Rellahan
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Born on January 8, 1929, in Laramie, WY, Gerry Spence was welcomed into the world by his parents, Gerald and Esther. He spent his childhood learning what it meant to live off the earth. In early childhood, Spence learned how to hunt animals for food. In fact, he lost several of his "farm pets" when they became supper. Through Spence's experiences growing up in the wilderness, he discovered that "killing in the courtroom is like killing in the mountains."
"Like all killing," explained Spence in his autobiography The Making of a Country Lawyer, "it carries with it the same ethical standards I saw my father live by when I was a child. One does not kill in the courtroom for the sheer sport of killing. One does not kill the opponent simply because one can. Only mad dogs, a few rogue wolves, and trophy hunters with piddling self-esteem, who line their walls with the innocent dead, kill for pleasure."
"The killing, the blood on the hands, the hands deep into the entrails of the witness on the witness stand—the whole process known as the trial must not be a mere exercise in killing. Instead, it should be the means by which justice is nourished and by which the rights of ordinary people are, at last, fed," wrote Spence.
During the Great Depression, the Spence family did not lose all of their savings. Nor did they succumb to unsanitary or unsafe working conditions, which ended the lives of many people during this time in history. However, they did lose "Little Peggy," Spence's younger sister, who died unexpectedly from cerebral meningitis.
"My first memories were of a small angel, she barely three and I four, her eyes as luminous as fire, her happiness, it seemed an inexhaustible flame," wrote Spence.
"I do not remember ever hearing her cry, but memories edit. And it was hard for me to understand how a perfect angel could die," said Spence.
Spence refers to Peggy as his first friend, and losing her had a permanent effect on his entire family. With stories of death swarming around them, it is no wonder that when the insurance men came knocking on the Spence family's door, Gerald and Esther handed over their entire savings. However, in the end, the insurance they purchased barely covered a week's worth of hospital expenses.
"Years later, as a lawyer," explained Spence, "I viewed the insurance companies with their pay-on-death policies and the carnival crooks with their shell games and the Mafia chiefs with their protection scams as all kindred under the skin."
"They all peddled the same thing—the placation of fear. All understand the dominant motivations of the species—fear and greed. In the end, fear wins out."
After Spence graduated from high school, he plotted to escape Wyoming with his best buddy, Jim Brown, and the two impulsively ventured out into the world. Working as sailors on a ship, Spence and Brown spent their free time drinking, smoking, and acting like rebellious teens, free from their parents' rules and regulations for the first time.
However, when it was all said and done, both boys returned to Laramie, where they enrolled at the University of Wyoming. They had hopes of becoming big-shot criminal lawyers like the legendary G.R. McConnell—a Wyoming attorney who defended a bootlegger and won by drinking the whiskey referred to by the court as "evidence" right in front of the judge and jury.
When Spence's father signed a three-year contract with a Bolivian company, his entire family moved and left Spence behind to attend college. Still drinking and goofing off, Spence and Brown rented a room in a basement and went to school. With feelings of intense dislike for himself mounting for all the "bad" he had done, it did not come as a surprise that his classmates failed to ask Spence to join their fraternity. In Spence's mind, he blamed himself for not fitting in. Without knowing that his destiny was to become a highly prolific lawyer who boldly defends the underdog, Spence felt as if he were nothing.
Because he was not a frat boy, he "didn't get the girls," according to Spence. However, although it hurt back then, he realizes now that it was a blessing in disguise.
In The Making of a Country Lawyer, Spence wrote, "Not having been chosen was one of the great gifts of my life.... What if my life was won or lost depending upon the clubs I belonged to or the socialites who invited me to their deadly stand-up cocktail parties? What if I ended up representing banks who robbed the poor rather than representing the poor, some of whom robbed the banks? What if, after a lifetime, I had no extra chamber in my heart for the widow mopping the toilets and the laboring man coughing in the mines?"
In October 1949, Spence's world turned upside down when he received the news that haunted him for years to come. His mother was dead; she had killed herself. As a rebel without a cause who had been repeatedly warned by his mother to behave, Spence blamed his bad behavior on the bullet that ultimately ended her life.
"My mother's suicide was a monster pounding at the door. Locked behind the door, I barred it and shoved the furniture of my life up against it," wrote Spence.
As a way to distract himself from his own deadly thoughts of self-loathing and blame, Spence dived into his studies. In 1952, he graduated cum laude from the University of Wyoming Law School. Explaining his methods of surviving the grueling exams in school, Spence stated, "I never struggled with logic, for the answers that logic produced often seemed brittle and superficial. I never sought to follow the loud, lawyerlike reasoning that the up-front brain spilled out, for on paper it made little sense. At last, I had no choice but to listen to the easy voice of the mind, to give in to it, and to write the exam as it dictated."
In his early law-practicing years, Spence worked as a prosecutor and built up an insurance clientele, later becoming one of the leading defense attorneys in the Intermountain West. However, with the memory of his parents' insurance plan along with other observations of hardworking Americans who had been "screwed" by the system, Spence eventually took an entirely new direction. He became the most well-known attorney to defend the "little guy" against large corporations, insurance companies, banks, and big businesses.
With multiple multi-million-dollar verdicts in his favor, Spence has won more criminal cases than any other lawyer in America. His first case that gained worldwide recognition was against Kerr-McGee in the Karen Silkwood case on behalf of her children. Defending Ed Cantrell in the famous Rock Springs, WY, murder case and winning big while earning $26.5 million against Penthouse for Miss Wyoming were just a few of his large victories.
Spence went on to receive a $52-million verdict against McDonald's Corporation on behalf of a small, bankrupt, family-owned ice cream company. In 1990, Spence won an acquittal for Imelda Marcos on multiple charges after a three-and-a-half-month trial in New York City. The year 1992 saw Spence win a $15-million verdict for emotional damages incurred by his quadriplegic client against a major insurance company. In 1993, Spence defended Randy Weaver on murder, assault, conspiracy, and gun charges in the famous Idaho federal standoff case. In Utah, Spence received a medical malpractice verdict, which established a new standard for nursing care in that state.
Spence has not lost a jury trial since 1969 and has never lost a criminal case. Along with his outstanding performance in the courtroom, this small-town lawyer with big victories is the author of 14 published books as well as a lecturer at law schools around the country. He is the founder and director of the nonprofit Trial Lawyers College, where attorneys learn to try cases on behalf of the people.
From 1995-1996, Spence teamed up with NBC to create The Gerry Spence Show, where he discussed legal and social issues that affected the lives of the people of our country. He is also the founder of Lawyers and Advocates for Wyoming, a nonprofit, public interest law firm. Having guest-hosted and appeared on Larry King Live and the Geraldo Rivera Show numerous times, he was also a legal consultant for NBC throughout the O.J. Simpson trial and founded The Spence Law Firm.
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