Jack Gordon brings his expertise to the Public Defender’s Office
After 40-plus years as a criminal defense attorney, Gordon lends his expertise, advice and counsel to the Tulsa County Public Defender’s Office.
Longtime practicing attorney Jack Gordon Jr. started at the Tulsa County Public Defender’s Office on Oct.1. His part-time role at the office is to assist on assigned cases and provide support where needed. For multiple years, Gordon has been recognized among “The Best Lawyers in America” in the criminal defense category.
Over Jack Gordon Jr.’s four decades in law, he has had numerous successes. But last year, at age 74, he knew a full-time criminal caseload might be too much.
Still healthy — he’s a spin class enthusiast and fly fisherman — he knew that if he got into the middle of a two-week trial and all of a sudden “dropped a stitch,” he would feel miserable. But he also knew he wasn’t ready to hang it up.
In 2018, while assisting the Tulsa County Public Defender’s Office on a murder case, a recess in the courthouse provided Gordon the opportunity to ask the newly minted Chief Public Defender Corbin Brewster if he would ever hire the veteran attorney as a Tulsa County Public Defender.
The answer was a resounding yes.
“I met Jack Gordon last year, but knew of him by reputation for years,” Brewster says. “Jack has had a legendary career in criminal defense that spans decades. When we met, we had an instant connection. Jack told me, ‘I want to help you make this office the best public defender’s office in the country … and we can do it.’ That’s an offer that cannot be refused.”
Gordon retired from private practice and went to work for Brewster on Oct. 1. Gordon’s vision for this office is bold, but earnest, Brewster says. Although Gordon is the first to say he has had a fulfilling career, his respect for his new position is evident in how he speaks of the office.
“I’ve never been as proud as when I came to work here,” Gordon says. “I’ve done lots of things, but intellectually, professionally, I’m ending my career as a public defender doing God’s work. ”
Finding his way
Growing up in Claremore, Gordon never really thought about being a lawyer, even though his dad, Jack Gordon Sr., had an established practice in Rogers County.
He attended the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, where he first considered a career as a college professor. However, he applied and was accepted to the University of Arkansas School of Law, the same matriculation path as his father. Gordon spent two and a half years on active duty with the U.S. Army, stationed in Hawaii and serving as a briefing officer in the Pacific. Encouraged by a colonel, Gordon did not extend his service and returned to Claremore to practice law at his father’s firm. The two founded Gordon and Gordon in 1976.
The younger Gordon was spending time as a general practice attorney — examining real estate titles, drawing wills, mediating divorces — when in 1975 he was appointed to represent Zoella Mae Dorland, a woman accused of second-degree murder. It was his first murder case, and it ended in a verdict of manslaughter with a suspended sentence. “I was real bad,” he admits. “I did not know what the hell I was doing.”
He decided to attend the American Trial Lawyers Association’s trial advocacy school. Even though he really didn’t have the money to attend, he scraped and borrowed because he “had to do this” to better equip himself for criminal
It was there he learned how to do direct and cross-examination; how to conduct voir dire and pick a jury; how to present an opening statement. His tutelage was under some of the best lawyers in the U.S.
A few years later, in 1984, a string of murders would forever change Gordon’s life.
Within a span of six weeks, an individual — who would later be discovered to be Gary Allen Walker — killed five people, one of those in Rogers County. Gordon reached out to fellow attorney Mike Zacharias, and the pair agreed to represent Walker. This was the real catalyst to Gordon’s career in criminal defense. “I knew exactly what I was getting into,” Gordon says. “Scared the hell out of me.”
Walker, a paranoid schizophrenic, had confessed to the killings. Gordon’s defense was “not guilty by reason of insanity.” A lengthy case and deliberation resulted in the death penalty for Walker. Gordon says the trial was an uphill battle from the start. The “devastating” result still chokes him up today.
Through appeals, the case was retried, and Gordon had the opportunity to defend the case again in 1992.
He tried it again using an insanity plea, and he says he was able to find a better expert, a neuropharmacologist who could speak to Walker’s medication at a federal mental institution. The Walker cases spanned nearly 10 years. “Turns out, he and I got to be real good friends,” Gordon says. Ultimately, Walker received multiple life terms and the death penalty. He was executed in 2000.
It’s that ability to form a trusted relationship that Gordon credits to much of his success. He says he has never felt threatened or nervous while counseling accused criminals.
Jackie Roberson, a convicted murderer and armed robber, was being held in Sapulpa when Gordon was appointed to represent him in a kidnapping case. “He was scary,” Gordon says. Since their initial meetings, Gordon had not been able to visit Roberson in about six weeks. “I ran up to the jail and said, ‘Jackie, I’m sorry I haven’t been up here. I’ve been busy.’” Gordon recalls. “He said, ‘You’ve done more for me than any lawyer I ever had. You don’t need to worry about coming up here,’ which was nice.”
Most recently, Gordon defended Darren Price, accused of the 2011 murders of Carissa Horton and Ethan Nichols in Hicks Park. “Nobody thought we’d save that guy’s life,” Gordon says. “In the courthouse, everybody thought he’d get the death penalty.” In 2014, Price was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Before joining the bench, District Judge Bill Musseman prosecuted cases against Gordon, whose ethical, respectful and fair presence in the courtoom left an impression. “Jack has a heart to serve,” says Musseman, who was delighted to hear that Gordon had joined the public defender’s office. In his role as judge, Musseman asked Gordon to mentor two attorneys, Mark Cagle and Steven Lee, in death-penalty cases. “I tried to talk them out of it,” Gordon says. “It changes your life and gives you an entirely different perspective on life if you do death-penalty work.”
That mentorship agreement strengthened the desire to teach other attorneys and sparked a friendship among the lawyers. Cagle and Lee recently took over Gordon’s practice in Claremore.
Gordon has tried nine death-penalty cases in his career. That kind of experience is invaluable to the fellow 43 attorneys who make up the Tulsa County Public Defender’s Office today.
“Our office is relatively young,” Brewster says. “Last year, we hired five TU law graduates who took the bar exam, then began working as assistant public defenders. Jack’s experience and wisdom help balance our office. He is professional, compassionate, enthusiastic, hard-working and funny. Also, he has a real passion for teaching. These characteristics make him a great advocate and mentor.”
Gordon works on assigned cases and teaches training classes on practical matters such as presentation and the importance of preparation before trial. His recent lectures on the psychology of trial and voir dire were helpful to a young public defender who incorporated some of what Gordon had talked about just days before his first jury trial — and he won.
“He hadn’t been practicing law but for four months,” Gordon says smiling like a proud parent. “I get to teach him. He doesn’t have any bad habits now, and if I can teach him the correct way to do things, he’ll never have any bad habits.”
Much of what Gordon does at the office now is provide support, with small roles to play in future jury trials, including a murder case in which he is currently involved. “It’s hard to look the devil in the eye for so long, which is what you do whenever you defend one of these cases,” Gordon says. “He’s there staring you down every time, and you get tired of it.
“It’s a lot of pressure. A lot of pressure, especially if you represent somebody who’s innocent — hardest case in the world is to represent somebody who’s innocent. There’s more pressure on you than in any other case.”
Gordon is teaching young attorneys some of what he considers the most important lessons of their career. He stresses the desire to do the right thing and having the passion to work at what you’re doing. But there’s one quality he considers the most important for his particular profession:
“I’m the only one in that courthouse that loves my client,” he says. “Nobody else likes them except me. If you don’t love your client, you’re sunk.”
Brewster affirms that indigent criminal defense is hard, often thankless work. Caseloads are big. Budgets are tight. Public defender cases frequently involve tragic facts and circumstances.
“The work can be discouraging for many reasons,” he says. “However, being a public defender is rewarding unlike any other area of law. Public defenders serve the community in an essential way. Without public defenders holding the line for the most unfortunate and unpopular members of our community, justice would not exist for anyone.
“When Jack joined us, he strengthened and invigorated the office,” Brewster says. “He increased our stock. I couldn’t be more proud to work with him.”
All in all, Gordon is happy in “retirement.”
“Allegedly this is a part-time job,” he says. “It’s not going to be. I’m too excited about it.
“Law has been very good to my dad and me — very good — and this is my payback. I get to make it good for a lot of other people.”