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Courting Controversy

Why is Jim Ecker always in the news? Because he can't say no to a good case

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Municipal court on a Thursday afternoon is not a glamorous place. There are no TV cameras. There's no mahogany and no robes. There are only unhappy people in uncomfortable chairs, moping, napping, reading novels, getting shushed by the bailiff and cracking their knuckles as they await their turn before city magistrate James Hanley.

Fehmi Abdullah is called, and his attorney follows him up to the stand. The attorney is not a tall man, but you can't miss him.

The lawyer's blue pinstripe suit fits immaculately, putting the fresh-out-of-law-school public defenders' first suits to shame. His tie is a bold sorbet pink. He knows the judge; they have a few laughs before getting started. He's brought his own stenographer.

Jim Ecker's deep tan, shock of white hair and confident strut across your television screen make him a fixture of the local-news mania for filmed perp walks and breathless outside-the-courtroom reporting. But today's case won't put him on the 6 o'clock news.

Abdullah, it develops, was pulled over, and a handgun was found in the car he was driving -- not his gun and, in fact, not his car. He'd exchanged cars quickly with his boss, because the boss needed his better car to get to Ohio in a hurry to attend to his mother, who was having a health emergency.

So Abdullah took the boss' car, and in the rush, neither man thought to remove the gun, for which his supervisor had a concealed-carry permit. Abdullah was cooperative throughout the stop. In fact, he had been pulled over just an hour before, driving his own car, which happened to match the description of the car of a suspect in some other matter entirely.

But prosecutor Chris Stone doesn't want to let Ecker's client off the hook for the gun, which, Stone says, he should have known was there. Ecker says the record of Abdullah having been pulled over earlier -- and the boss' permit for the gun, which they have before them -- will clear it all up. They just need to find the record, which will take time.

"I get paid to come to all these hearings, Chris," Ecker tells Stone. "Let's postpone it, let's come back. I don't care, I'm happy to do whatever."

"The firearm was exposed enough that the officer didn't have to search the automobile to find it," Stone counters. "I think this would be better resolved at trial."

"The most important fact you know is that this occurs at night," says Ecker. "When I get into a car at night, I don't look in the passenger side to see is there a gun. Is there a kilo of cocaine, marijuana? No, I just drive."

"Case dismissed," says Judge Hanley.

No flash, no glamour. Most people will never hear about the case, never know that Ecker got it thrown out. But Ecker lives for this stuff, whether it's on TV or not.

"What people don't know is that he does as many run-of-the-mill cases, DUI, drug cases," says Ecker's daughter, Sharon. "He does as many of those as the others, but those don't make the news."

"What I'm proudest of are the things I do that don't get any publicity," says James Ecker. "You gotta pay dues."

Jimmy Ecker -- everybody calls him Jimmy -- has been practicing law in Pittsburgh for nearly four decades. His age is off the record, though he'll cop to being "over 70." He lives in the Squirrel Hill home he grew up in as the eldest of three kids, with both parents and a governess named Mimi. He's got two daughters, one of whom is an attorney. He went to Shadyside Academy, Dickinson College and the Dickinson School of Law. Practicing law, he says, gets him up mornings.

The bulk of his work is run-of-the-mill: divorces and business cases. But it's the big-ticket criminal-defense cases that have made him a household name.

He has defended controversial cops and notorious criminals. He defended Thomas Hose on charges of abducting and imprisoning a teen-age Tanya Kach and keeping her as a sex slave for a decade in his parents' McKeesport house. He successfully defended John Vojtas, the white Brentwood cop who faced charges of manslaughter in the death of black motorist Jonny Gammage a decade ago. He defended Jeffrey Cooperstein, a Pittsburgh Police officer who shot another black motorist, Deron Grimmitt, in 1998. He defended Ronald Taylor, who is currently on death row for a March 2000 rampage that killed three people at a Wilkinsburg McDonald's. He is defending Shakita Mangham against charges of involuntary manslaughter stemming from a house fire which killed five children in Larimer last June; Mangham and a friend, Furaha Love, had allegedly left the children home alone while hanging out in a bar.

If you've seen Ecker on the evening news -- which is to say, if you watch the evening news at all -- you've probably wondered: Why does Jim Ecker always seem to represent such controversial clients? Is he just in it for the publicity? How do some of his obviously indigent clients -- many of whom would seem hard-pressed to pay for one of Ecker's suits -- afford his services?

"In the beginning, every case I have looks very bad," Ecker acknowledges, sitting behind a big oak desk in his office. Strewn across the couch is his coat, which only partly conceals a copy of Sports Illustrated's most recent swimsuit edition. Though many people he defends are accused of awful crimes, and some are ultimately found guilty, "almost everybody has something good in them," he says. "There are redeeming factors in a lot of people. I do have sympathy for the victims in a case, even when I represent the other side."

Mangham, for example, "knows she screwed up," he says. "She's paying for it. I feel very sympathetic toward her." He describes her as "a super-nice lady. In fact ..."

Ecker picks up the phone and dials it.

"Shakita? It's Jim. What are you doing with your life right now? CCAC in Homewood ... church on Sundays ... seeing your son on weekends ... you're working, right? Starting next week? We'll get together next week. Peace and love, honey." He hangs up.

Taylor is one of the very few clients in whom Ecker was hard-pressed to find anything redeeming. Taylor was "insane as anybody" Ecker says today. "He was really crazy." But if you can't find something nice to say about your client, you should find another business. "He seems like a nice guy," Ecker told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette the day after the shootings. "Obviously, he is unhappy about what happened."

"A lawyer's job is to make it look better to the public, the potential jury," Ecker says now. He says it's critical to get clients out on bond, as Mangham is, whenever possible. "I think it's very important for jurors to see a person not in captivity," he says. "Jurors are asked if they have any preconceived notions, if a person is charged with a crime, did they do it? You'd be surprised how many people say yes. It's difficult to get that stain away from a juror's mind." Seeing a defendant out walking with their attorney, having lunch wherever they please, though, "gives jurors a chance to see the client as a free person."

Which means, of course, that by making that phone call to Mangham, Ecker has turned this article into a defense exhibit -- not for use in a courtroom, but for public consumption.

Though many of his clients clearly do not come from wealth, Ecker says he does no pro-bono work. "Everybody pays me," he says. "Their families come up with money, their friends."

How much money?

"That, I ain't gonna mention," he says. "A lawyer shouldn't charge exorbitant fees. I don't have a set fee. Every case is different. I have a minimum fee to show up for an arraignment. For trials, we charge less than a lot of lawyers."

"He enjoys doing the type of cases that the media wants to write about," says John Elash, an attorney who's worked with Ecker on dozens of cases. "His impulse is to take a case that other people wouldn't because they're afraid of the negative publicity or they're afraid they can't win it."

Ecker says his time in the spotlight probably has cost him business over the years: He's so well-known for the splashy stuff that people don't call him for prosaic stuff, like divorces. But there's clearly an upside.

"I've seen people ask him for autographs," Elash says. "There's only one Jim Ecker."

The plate on Ecker's office door still reads "Ecker, Ecker and Ecker," though James is the only Ecker still practicing.

The first Ecker listed is I. Elmer Ecker, the man who made Jimmy Ecker want to be a lawyer.

"My father is my idol," he says.

"My grandfather was an excellent attorney," agrees Sharon Ecker, who was one of the firm's three Eckers from 1990 to 2001, but who has since moved to Florida.

The senior Ecker made a name for himself representing Pittsburgh prizefighters and ballplayers. Inside the firm's office is a framed photo of him with famed boxer Billy Conn, "The Pittsburgh Kid" who nearly beat Joe Louis, and a program from a 1960 testimonial dinner for I. Elmer Ecker.

"From the time I was little, Dad would take me to fights," Ecker recalls. And he learned another form of combat from him as well: "I'd go with him to his offices. ... He practiced law until he had a stroke. I hope to do the same thing."

And Ecker remains an old-school attorney. He admits he's "not into computers," and doesn't know how to use the fax or the copier machine. His files consist of oak-tag folders filled with pages covered in handwritten notes. And he laments, "I think there's a certain kind of person that is a dying breed: the old-fashioned attorneys I saw growing up.

"There are lawyers who are still doing it the right way," he allows, and young attorneys who do right in Ecker's eyes might find themselves the recipient of an encouraging letter from him. "When I see young lawyers, I try to help them." Screw up and look sloppy, however, and Ecker just might call you out -- off the record, of course.

Too many attorneys (and even some judges) don't approach their vocations with the proper gravitas, Ecker says. "It upsets me when I see lawyers laughing and smiling with their client," he says. "It's no joke. I don't like when lawyers do things they shouldn't do: When the oath is being given, don't move. Always call a judge 'your honor.' They don't show respect, they don't dress like they should, they chew gum. Any time you say a word to a judge, you stand up. Lawyers don't even have the decency to stand up -- whether you like him or not, he's still the judge.

"My dad used to tell me, 'Be nice to the doorman at the hotel; one day he might own the hotel.'"

Ecker says that such lessons have paid off over the years. "In 40 years, I've never been sued, never been disciplined," he says.

But that's not entirely true.

In 2004, Thomas DeMars and his son, Jean, sued Ecker. Jean DeMars was facing sex-abuse charges, and, according to his father, hired Ecker because he'd seen him on TV. The affidavit in the complaint says the DeMars family gave Ecker $16,000 and received little in return. Jean DeMars is currently serving time for the sex crimes. Reached by phone at his home in Bethel Park, Thomas DeMars still bristles at Ecker's name. "I told my son he's nothing but a goddamn showman," he says. "He turns everything over to [John] Elash, that's how they play this game. Elash called my son's wife and I in and says, 'I ain't gonna do any more without five grand more.'"

The suit left court and went before the Allegheny County Bar Association Special Fee Determination Committee, an arbitration panel made up of attorneys. The panel found in Ecker's favor, and the complaint was dismissed.

DeMars says the arbitration, which he claims not to have agreed to, was "a stacked deck. All of them worked together. They're all attorneys, they're all Democrats, they're all in the good-ol'-boys network together."

Melaine Rothey, chair of the Special Fee Determination Committee, says that's preposterous. "There is no question that many of us know each other," she allows, but she says attorneys also have in common "an interest in protecting the profession. ... We don't want an unscrupulous attorney out there screwing our profession." And while DeMars says he didn't want to take his complaint to arbitration, Rothey says, "We have no ability to force a particular attorney or client to participate. [A complainant] has to sign an agreement to arbitration."

"He was dissatisfied," Ecker says of DeMars. All he and Elash could do, he says, was pare down the length of Jean DeMars' sentence. "That was my only dissatisfied client."

At any rate, Ecker seems to be quite well thought of by his peers -- even those who have faced him in court. Robert DelGreco represented Jonny Gammage's family in a wrongful-death suit. The case was polarizing, so much so that DelGreco no longer wants to talk about it. ("You were passionately in one camp or the other," he says. "That case is now history.") But he will say, "I've known Jimmy now for going on 25 years. It's always nice to expect and anticipate a gentleman on the other side."

DelGreco calls Ecker a great marketer and rainmaker: "His ability to obtain clients and service this in whatever fashion he can is important." DelGreco compares being a trial attorney to being a prizefighter: It's a "knockdown, drag-out, pressure-cooker" activity, a "combative path."

The metaphor is especially suited to Ecker, whose father's first job was as a sportswriter for the Braddock Daily News. He took it to pay his way through the University of Pittsburgh, and he always knew to work the press. "My dad got a lot of ink, a lot of publicity," Ecker says. And along with a passion for the law, Ecker inherited a deep understanding about the power of the media.

"I've never said no to anybody that's in the media," Ecker says. "That's what an attorney is here for. I will never say 'no comment' on a case.' I don't believe in lying to them, I don't believe in bullshitting them. I take all of you very seriously."

Ecker "enjoys talking to the press," says attorney Tom Ceraso, who has worked alongside Ecker. "He does it in an effort to help his clients out. He feels the better public posture you can put on a case, the better for your client."

Much of the time, Ecker's TV appearances are impromptu press conferences after an arraignment. "I don't call the news media and tell them I'm coming. Somebody has called the media and they're there," he says. Law-enforcement officials, he notes, are no strangers to the publicity game. "Police officials want to see themselves with the defendant in handcuffs. I don't call anybody, but all the cameras are there. I don't know who does it -- it ain't me."

Still, it's safe to say Ecker will never injure himself trying to dodge a camera. "He's not reticent," says DelGreco. "Whether he seeks [television coverage] out or not, I think he relishes it. I don't mean that as a criticism."

An initial inquiry by CP for this story, in fact, yielded an offer for a meeting the next day. And when a CP photographer left a message with Ecker's answering service, she was put in touch with Ecker immediately. At midnight.

Yet one of Ecker's pet peeves -- which may seem surprising, given his own visibility -- is lawyers who advertise.

"I've never advertised in my life," he says. "I've always looked down upon people who advertise."

But aren't his television appearances a form of free advertising? "I guess," he says. But he makes no apology for making frequent media appearances: "So does every other lawyer with high-profile cases.

"I try to do the best job I can for people," Ecker adds. As for whether other lawyers might scoff at his frequent time in the spotlight: "I guess some lawyers are just jealous of me."

But there's no question that Ecker, more than many other attorneys, understands that the law is a kind of performance. It's one that begins when the client first enters his office, where Ecker has created a unique kind of stage.

The client entering Ecker's lobby sees a tanks of big showy fish ... and a tribe of muscular frogs bobbing in a tank in the corner of the reception area. The frogs, some gray and some white, are huge, prehistoric-looking. They've been there for years, Ecker says.

Down a hallway, the accused will see a framed photo of Tony Montana, Al Pacino's coke-slinging Cuban megalomaniac thug from the movie Scarface. Montana's line from the film -- "Who do I trust? Me!" -- is engraved on the frame, which also houses a cigar, which numbered among the fictional Montana's vices. Scarface, Ecker says, is the only movie he watches again and again. "I guess that says something about me," he says.

In Ecker's office itself, the accused will see ... a mockup of a guillotine in the corner. "Yeah, it freaks some people out," Ecker says with a grin. "Then I take 'em back and show 'em the electric chair!" Yes, there's also a model electric chair in a back office. And yes, he's hoping to find a gallows somewhere to complete the set.

The idea is to lighten the mood a bit for clients, Ecker says. At initial meetings, clients are generally in a dark mood and can use a little perspective ... gallows humor, if you will. "It's something I hope I never see anybody get," Ecker says -- of the death penalty, not the joke.

Some of the other mementos are more reassuring. "Being the modest person that I am ..." Ecker says, pointing out photos on the wall of him with local and worldwide celebrities: former U.S. Attorney General and Pennsylvania Gov. Dick Thornburg, Steelers owner Art Rooney and high-profile attorney Johnnie Cochran. Ecker also keeps a laminated thank-you note from John Vojtas; Ecker calls the letter, which refers to him as "a true artist at work, a guru," a good-luck charm.

The cards from four landmark poker victories -- each a royal flush dealt straight -- are also framed, with the sore loser's jocular epithet "Fuck you, Jim!" scrawled across them. The money he won was for charity, and one of the players was Marie Torre, who once made headlines -- and spent 10 days in jail -- for refusing to reveal the source of a column she wrote for the New York Herald Tribune about Judy Garland. Ecker represented her for her whole life, he says proudly, though he thinks of her first and foremost as a poker player.

And then there are the clowns: photos of clowns, ceramic clowns, clown-themed snowglobes and music boxes. A clown straddling the guillotine. Shots of Ecker in clown makeup.

"I keep all this clown shit, it's from clients," he explains.

Ecker spends time dressed as a clown from time to time, entertaining kids and escaping his own reality: "I love doing that. It doesn't matter what kind of mood you're in. One of the great things about being a clown is the stuff you can get away with."

As a member of the Shriners -- and their attorney -- Ecker prides himself on doing things to help kids. In fact, he selects the musical clown snowglobe from among the shelves and upends it, unfolds a yellowed, hand-written note stashed underneath:

"Dear Mr. Ecker, just a token of my appreciation, your buddy Sean."

His buddy Sean, Ecker says, was a client from 15 years ago -- who snapped after ceaseless bullying and stabbed one of his tormenters to death.

But after 40 years of practicing law, Ecker takes the center ring less often than he used to. He no longer argues cases before a jury, choosing more often to take the "second chair" on a defense team -- setting strategy while letting other attorneys carry it out.

"He has chosen to sort of second-chair you in court now," says John Elash. "Two heads are better than one. In most high-profile cases there's more than one attorney."

"He's not a young man," DelGreco says. "Possibly or probably his longevity in the legal system may be attributable to know[ing] when to stop being the trial lawyer versus serving in a different capacity." He'd still call Ecker a workaholic, though: "It's a prevalent affliction among our profession." But, DelGreco adds, "I know he takes breaks to go to Florida, as evidenced by his tans now and then."

"For the first 20 years or so, I did everything by myself. I saw friends of mine having breakdowns, becoming alcoholics," Ecker says. "In a jury trial, they always have a team. You can't try a major case by yourself."

But despite the slowing down, Ecker remains as compulsive as ever about answering the phone. And after 40 years of practice, nothing lights him up like a call from jail. Even when such a call comes in the midst of a disquisition about polygraphs, Ecker can't help but pick up the receiver.

"That's life in the big city," Ecker tells the desperate voice on the other end of the line. "Have somebody in your family come retain me."

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