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Famed criminal defense attorney Ecker dies at 84

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Wednesday, Dec. 25, 2013, 9:45 p.m.
 

Prominent Pittsburgh criminal defense attorney James Ecker spent a lifetime serving a critical role in an often maligned corner of the legal community, friends and colleagues said on Wednesday.

“He was a legend in his own time,” said defense attorney Phil DiLucente, remembering his courtroom mentor and friend.

Ecker, a lifelong Squirrel Hill resident, died in his sleep early Christmas Day. He was 84.

Ecker became well-known during his 55-year career for escorting his clients into police stations and courtrooms through hordes of TV cameras and reporters, deflecting and answering questions and often getting cases dismissed or negotiating plea deals before they reached trial.

“When I worked with Jim, I knew my role,” said retired defense attorney John Elash.

As with Elash, Ecker's partners tried cases in the courtroom while Ecker handled the media spotlight and negotiated plea deals.

“Then he handled the police, the judge, the DA,” Elash said. “It was that behind-the-scenes stuff like preparing witnesses, talking to people, negotiating — I never negotiated a deal like he could in all my 37 years — that really mattered.”

“He looked at it beyond the details,” said defense attorney Robert Stewart. “If something wasn't defensible and shouldn't go to trial, he'd make sure he had private investigators and the right co-counsel. He'd find a way to make it work.”

Ecker represented clients at the center of some of the region's highest-profile cases, including Thomas John Hose, the McKeesport school security guard he once defended on national TV. Hose ultimately pleaded guilty to charges related to kidnapping teenager Tanya Kach.

Ecker stood in court beside Leslie Mollett, the St. Clair Village man sentenced to life in prison for fatally shooting state police Cpl. Joseph Pokorny, and he represented former state Rep. Jeff Habay, who was sentenced to six to 12 months in jail on corruption charges.

“These cases just happen. They call and ask for help, and that's what I do,” Ecker said previously of his fame. “I don't know how it happened.”

With his characteristic tan and white hair, Ecker's status as one of the most recognizable lawyers in Pittsburgh stemmed from his late father, I. Elmer Ecker, Pittsburgh's original lawyer to the stars, who represented boxing champions, actors and ballplayers.

He kept those idols nearby, covering office walls with his father's photos and even more of himself dressed as a clown for circuses and children's festivals organized by the Masons and the Shriners. He served as chief barker of the Variety Club, a charity.

“That silver-headed guy,” Stewart said, wooed more than a few of his clients away.

Allegheny County President Judge Jeffrey Manning said he watched Ecker put a positive spin on criminal charges for 40 years, he said. Ecker served the legal community well simply by emphasizing the presumption of innocence, Manning said.

Attorney Brent McCune, a colleague, said Ecker's death came as a shock.

“I just saw him on Friday riding around the parking lot,” McCune said. “He was fine. Very brisk. Then I heard from his daughter (on Wednesday) morning. What a blow.”

Ecker's high-profile clients varied widely: Dr. Grover Phillipi, who wore a Santa Claus costume to kidnap his stockbroker; Isaac Gilbert, who exchanged gunfire with police at Three Rivers Stadium during a Monday Night Football game. He represented police officers including John Vojtas, the white Brentwood patrolman cleared in the racially charged 1995 death of black motorist Jonny Gammage.

Fellow criminal defense attorney Robert G. Del Greco Jr. estimated that as few as 500 of Allegheny County's 7,500 lawyers opt to defend accused criminals.

“It's easy to get clinical and callous practicing criminal defense, but not Jimmy,” Del Greco said. “He had a kind heart and a gentle spirit. He will be missed.”

Arrangements for Ecker were incomplete, according to William Slater II Funeral Service in Green Tree.

Megan Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach her at 412-388-5815 or mharris@tribweb.com.

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