Three local defense attorneys share their most meaningful verdicts, what led them to the job and the cases that keep them coming back for more.
(page 1 of 3)
The public defender’s office sits on the third floor the ornate Pythian Building, with its brightly tiled and chandeliered lobby.
But the third floor is a no-frills picture of criminal defense.
The carpet, once light blue, is worn to a grayish white and bare down the middle.
The walls, once painted white, now show their age with scuffs.
The back office at the end of a winding hall belongs to Chief Public Defender Pete Silva. He surrounds himself with an Oriental rug, antique radios and pictures of his cats, Sophie and Roxie, and his wife of 25 years, Sherry.
Silva knows the reputation public defenders have — that they work for judges, that a “real” lawyer would already have figured out how to get a client out of jail, that a person with money could buy a better defense from a private attorney.
So, when he goes to jail to visit a defendant for the first time, Silva realizes that gaining trust may be a struggle.
“Public defenders are different,” Silva says. “It’s a commitment. Private attorneys have to keep an eye on the bottom line. They have to pay their health insurance and rent.”
Public defenders, though, don’t have to worry about an office or overhead, and although the district court judge hires the chief public defender, the 38 assistant public defenders answer only to Silva.
Silva works to gain each client’s trust and ask his clients to judge him based on how he works their case.
If he wanted to prove himself to a client, he could.
Silva is a Vietnam veteran with a Purple Heart for an injury that left him with only 10 percent vision in his right eye.
After leaving the Marine Corps, he went to journalism school at The University of Tulsa. One of his assignments was to follow a reporter and write a story about the experience.
At the time, Tulsa World reporter Ralph Marler was covering the courthouse beat. Silva followed Marler and decided to write the story of a Vietnam veteran who got into drugs and was being sentenced on Veteran’s Day. The veteran was represented by the first chief public defender, Paul Brunton. The Tulsa World published the article, and Silva had found his calling — not reporting, but defending.
At the TU law school, Silva and his friend Allen Smallwood earned intern licenses, and both wanted one of three highly sought-after internships at the public defender’s office.
“Allen and I hung around and made nuisances of ourselves for a year before we were even eligible,” Silva says.
Eventually both became interns. After graduation, Silva tried his hand as an assistant public defender and in private practice before returning as chief in 1996, “because it was the only job open.”
He has announced that he plans to retire in April 2013.
When he thinks of his biggest win, he tells the story of a man he doesn’t even know.
His mother came home from the grocery story one day and said that the cashier asked if she was related to Pete Silva.
“Your son saved my marriage and my husband’s life,” Silva recalls his mother saying.
His mother found out that it had been a drug charge but never learned the defendant’s name. Still, that nameless man is the reason Silva loves being a public defender.
“It’s a very comforting thing to know that some young man who was making poor choices got a second chance and took advantage of it,” Silva says.
More infamous was Silva’s defense of Robert Doss, a police officer who was accused in the 1982 Crossbow Murder Case of Michele Powers, his ex-girlfriend and mother of his child.
Three men went to trial: Doss; Doss’ roommate, Jimmie Dean Stohler, also a former police officer; and Jack “Butch” Ensminger Jr., a friend of Stohler’s who Stohler said he paid for the killing. Ensminger was the first of the three to go to trial.
At the time, David Moss was district attorney, and Moss chose not to file charges against Doss because he did not feel he could go forward with the case. Public sentiment and newspaper editorials, a weigh-in by the mayor and a Crime Commission reward leading to Doss’ arrest, however, led to a grand jury indictment, Silva says.
Doss insisted upon a public defender because he refused to bankrupt his family, Silva says.
The entire public defender’s office was challenged when Ensminger, represented by Larry Oliver, was found not guilty. Silva immediately taped the verdict to his door and wrote on it, “If Larry Oliver can do it, so can we.” Public defenders (at the time) Frank McCarthy and Martin Hart assisted Silva with the case.
Tulsa World associate editor Julie DelCour was a young reporter at the time and covered the Ensminger case.
“People were completely taken aback,” DelCour recalls. “It was the talk of the town. People wanted to read it every day, and they would read it all the way to the jump.”
Silva’s client, Doss, was found not guilty of first-degree murder and conspiracy.
“I think David Moss had it right when he declined to indict,” DelCour says. “I can see why a jury would certainly have reasonable doubt.”
Only Stohler — the third to stand trial — went to prison for the murder.
As they composed themselves after the victory, Silva told Doss he wanted only one memento of the episode. He took a pair of scissors and cut off the jail armband that Doss had worn since his arrest. He keeps the armband in his office to this day, along with a plaque from Doss’ family.
Silva’s next big case will be defending Alvin Watts, one of two men accused in the 2011 Good Friday killings, in which three people were killed and two wounded in north Tulsa on April 6.