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Peers: Attorney for Franklin Regional suspect 'as good as they get'

| Sunday, June 8, 2014, 11:06 p.m.
Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
Patrick Thomassey, defense attorney for stabbing suspect Alex Hribal, conducts a live interview on Thursday morning, April 10, 2014. Hribal, 16, allegedly stabbed 21 students and a security guard at Franklin Regional Senior High School.

A Duquesne University basketball-player-turned-prosecutor for Allegheny County stood in front of a jury about 40 years ago and cleared the air: “Yes, I am 6-foot-10.”

When it was time for the defense to address the panel, attorney Patrick Thomassey stood up, leaned into the jury box and declared: “In case you haven't noticed, I'm not.”

The exchange was a classic example of Thomassey's sense of humor and ability to think quickly, his friends and colleagues said. Those traits, in addition to his work ethic and integrity, make him one of the area's top criminal defense lawyers, they said.

“There may well be no better lawyer in the state, maybe the country, than he is,” said Common Pleas President Judge Jeffrey A. Manning.

Thomassey, 65, of Monroeville represents Alex Hribal, 16, the Franklin Regional High School student accused of taking two 8-inch knives to school and using them to stab a security guard and 20 students in a first-floor hallway just before classes started on April 9.

Thomassey knows he'll be under the microscope.

“This is the kind of case I'm going to be criticized for, whatever I do,” he said. “I'm just trying to do what's best for this young kid. This was a good, solid American family who are flabbergasted by this whole situation.”

Thomassey grew up in Turtle Creek, fewer than 10 miles from Franklin Regional.

He became an assistant district attorney in 1975 upon graduating from Western State College of Colorado and Duquesne Law and made a name for himself prosecuting Richard Henkel, a Hampton man suspected of committing as many as 32 murders and plotting to kidnap Steelers owner Art Rooney Sr. for ransom.

A decade later — when he switched to criminal defense — Thomassey represented Brentwood police Lt. Milton E. Mulholland, who with two other white police officers, was charged with killing Jonny Gammage, a black motorist, in a racially charged incident that divided the city. District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. dropped the charges against the officers after two mistrials.

“I got a lot of satisfaction from that case because everybody in the world had those guys convicted,” Thomassey said.

Edgewood police Chief Robert Payne, a former county police detective who was the lead investigator on the Henkel case, praised Thomassey's efforts. The two traveled to Los Angeles and parts of Canada gathering evidence to build the case.

“If you're going up against Pat, you better do your homework. You'd better be sharp,” Payne said. “If I was ever in trouble, he'd be the first person I'd call.”

Going up against Thomassey always was a challenge, said Garry A. Nelson, the former college basketball-player-turned- prosecutor.

“He's a tenacious lawyer who fights like crazy and knows how to try a case,” Nelson said.

Former Assistant Public Defender Gary Gentile said Thomassey's ability to step back and apply the law within a “life context” has been critical to his success.

“He understands life and the law, and he gets the big picture,” Gentile said. “In the criminal law field, he's as good as they get.”

Thomassey said he doesn't try to be “magical,” just forthright and honest.

“For me, being a lawyer is not a job. It's a commitment. You have to be committed to your clients,” he said.

Adam Brandolph is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-391-0927 or abrandolph@tribweb.com.

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