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People Top 5
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- August 24, 1981
- Vol. 16
- No. 8
For Country Lawyer Gerry Spence, It's Open Season on Big Corporations
He quit the bottle, but that failed to resolve his midlife crisis. Nor did dissolving his marriage of 21 years. Nor did the humanizing comeuppance of losing three consecutive cases. Then came a chance encounter with a disabled man he'd once devastated in court. Having injured his back in an auto crash, the victim filed a claim. Says Spence, "I arrogantly and unjustly beat him" out of compensation. It was the victim's unexpected behavior—"He was so kind to me, so gentle"—that triggered in the lawyer a life-altering epiphany: "People said I had great skills, but what does it mean if you don't use them correctly?"
That afternoon, Spence says, he severed all his ties to 40 insurance companies and vowed to serve only "the little man. In America, corporations need us to survive, so they've enslaved our minds and our value systems. But like dragons, corporations can be slain. I decided to be seen as the country lawyer, living in a small town, who could kill corporations in the courtroom."
And in fact, in the dozen years since he has made it a specialty to wound—if not bury—megafirms. Undefeated before both civil and criminal juries since 1969, Spence at 52 has won some of the largest personal-injury verdicts in the annals of U.S. jurisprudence. These judgments include the stunning $26.5 million verdict (subsequently reduced to $14 million and still being appealed) against Penthouse for libeling a former Miss Wyoming; $10.5 million (being appealed) against the Kerr-McGee Corp. for the plutonium contamination of Karen Silkwood; and a settlement rumored to be in the high seven figures from Squibb for a client who claimed that Gestest, the company's now banned drug to test pregnancies, had caused grotesque birth defects. In making the settlement, Spence says, Squibb demanded his voluminous research as well as his promise not to represent other victims of the drug.
Of course, stalking behemoths has its rewards. Spence's fee—a contingency arrangement entitling him to as much as 50 percent of all judgments and settlements—has drawn fire. He dismisses his critics, saying they believe "money is cleansed by passing it through the begging bowl. I espouse a new ethic that one can do good and still be successful financially."
Not only does money allow Spence to select his clients, it buys time and expertise, two keys to his phenomenal record. "There's hardly ever an instance that I don't outspend my opponent," he says. "Often we get involved in elaborate research and experiments to prove the case." Before a trial's start, Spence will stock a 35-foot mobile home that is his traveling office with depositions (often on videotape), charts and enlargements to use as visual aids, and home movies of deceased or injured victims.
Spence's courtroom demeanor has been refined over the years through psychotherapy and sensitivity training. Habitually clad in 10-gallon Stetson, leather jacket and cowboy boots, the 6'2", 225-pound attorney stalks into a court with the bravado of a big game hunter. But Spence can instantly disarm both foes and jurors—especially those in his home state—with Big Sky candor. "I tell the jury when I'm nervous, when I screw up and when I'm afraid," he explains. "I used to be a bad slasher, attacking viciously. I learned my present style out of my need to be accepted." Analyzes longtime Spence observer Robert Rose, Chief Justice of Wyoming's Supreme Court, "When he wants you to like him, it's just impossible to keep from doing that. A jury looks for the comforting arms of somebody whom they can trust. He is able to convince them he's the place to go for protection."
Like all good litigators, Spence has a Perry Mason jar full of tricks. He once staged a quick-draw duel with real guns (loaded with blanks) to help a client beat a murder rap, and in a personal injury case kept on his table a sealed black minicasket supposedly containing the leg amputated from his client. But Spence would rather use subtler means. Says U.S. District Court Judge Frank Theis, who presided over the Silkwood trial in Oklahoma, "Spence is the best cross-examiner I've ever heard." The lawyer traces that ability to becoming "a hunter when I was young. One thing I learned was to track well. It's a way of listening. An animal talks to me by its tracks. I get information from witnesses in ways that are similar to tracking an animal, through body language and other things."
Finally, there is Spence's stirring rhetoric, delivered in a resonant Johnny Cash baritone. In 1976 he represented a young Washington, D.C. secretary who contended Angier St. George Biddle Duke, son of the former U.S. Ambassador to Spain and Denmark and JFK's chief of protocol, had negligently infected her with gonorrhea. The couple had traveled across a number of states, but the suit was brought in Wyoming, which "Pony" Duke called home. After reminding the jury that his client's reproductive system had been severely damaged, Spence ad-libbed, "Plaintiff in this case brought suit against Angier St. George Biddle Duke. It's not his fault that that's his name. As a matter of fact, it's sort of an interesting name.... It's true that a name has nothing to do with this case.... [But] I must call your attention to the fact that my client will probably never have a chance to name [a] child from her womb." (A Cody jury awarded the woman $1.3 million; the judgment was reversed on grounds that the statute of limitations for bringing the case had run out.)
Spence has even applied his eloquence to win the death penalty, despite his deeply felt aversion to capital punishment. In 1978 he and partner Eddie Moriarity volunteered—gratis—to become special state prosecutors in a case involving the brutal bombing murder of a lawyer colleague and his family. In Spence's summation against the mastermind of the crime, he declared: "Every society in the world, from our tribal beginnings, has had the right to kill our enemies so that we can survive.... We have the right to kill germs, to kill mad dogs, to kill snakes.... It's the right to go to bed at night and know you will, God willing, awaken unharmed in the morning.... And those who threaten that right, who kill while we are asleep, who buy death while we innocently go about our lives, are our enemies." The jury found the man guilty on four counts of Murder One and he was sentenced to death. (He is currently serving four consecutive life terms; the death sentence is under review.)
The eldest child of a chemist and a schoolteacher, Spence was born in Laramie, Wyo. and grew up in the hard times of the Depression. "When you see these turquoise trappings and stuff today," Spence says, "it's just the poor boy in me wanting to spend. My parents never wasted anything. In the summertime the rooms in our house were rented to tourists. I lived outside in a tent under the chokeberry tree, cleaned the rooms, changed the beds and got the 50-cent rents—it was for my college education." Though he graduated with honors from the University of Wyoming Law School, Spence flunked his first bar exam. But he recovered quickly and gained fame in the area as a vice-battling county prosecutor. In 1962 he was emboldened to run for the GOP nomination for the state's one congressional seat. Defeated, Spence turned himself into "a gunslinger for hire," and quickly found his insurance company clients.
Then his personal life deteriorated. In 1968, after being blocked in his bid for a state judgeship, Spence impulsively shuttered his Riverton, Wyo. practice, disposed of all the family possessions in an epic tag sale and moved his brood to San Francisco, where he enrolled in art school. Two months later his dreams of painting had ended. So had his marriage. Wed as a student to Anna Wilson, Spence reflects, "My first wife is a very good woman who really raised me—I was 19 when we got married. She introduced me to art, she was a great pianist, she tried to civilize me—and I remained savage." She also bore him four children, whose current ages are from 30 to 20. "My kids only have one father," says Spence, "and therefore insist that I was a good father. But they also know that I failed them in many ways. Now that I'm older, I'm very involved in all their lives."
Back in Wyoming, Spence began seeing interior decorator LaNelle Hawks, whose own first marriage was ending. When he suffered his unprecedented three straight court defeats, she didn't lose faith in him. "She could accept me without my frightening her," he says of the woman he nicknamed Imaging (a word he dreamed). "It was so easy for me to rub souls with her. Our love healed me." They married in 1969. Today Imaging, 40, her son, Chris, 15, and Gerry share a new 21-room house outside Jackson (pop. 4,504), where his six-member firm is located. They also own a cattle ranch, Thunderhead, at 35,000 acres one of northwest Wyoming's largest.
Each week Spence turns down 30 to 40 new clients, but his caseload stands at 150. Chief among them is a $110 million suit against 14 Utah officials on behalf of a widow and children of excommunicated Mormon polygamist John Singer. (He was shot in 1979 by Utah police during a dispute over his right to educate his children at home.) Still, the lawyer makes the time to pursue such avocations as poetry, painting and nature photography and to work on memoirs that Doubleday will publish next year.
Spence is a frequent lecturer at law schools and wishes he could "unteach most of the things they learn in school—they are trained to deny their emotions and humanness, yet they're called upon to represent human beings who are emotional. I would teach them to paint. And to dance, so they would learn about their bodies. I want them to experience poetry. Then I'd send them to prison so they'd see what it's like, what a terrible burden it is they really have. I would take them to see an autopsy and to watch a mortician prepare people for the grave—and thus have them realize what it is to be afraid and alone."
Spence experienced just such an awakening a dozen years ago. Nowadays, however, his burden has become his remarkable reputation and long winning streak. "I have to spend more and more time dealing with everyone's expectations," he says. "The great reward for winning is to be thrown back into the pit, like a gladiator." The alternative, however, is unthinkable. "Intellectually, I know that losing a case wouldn't make me less of a lawyer. But the pain of losing is so overwhelming that I just don't permit it to happen. If I'm beaten," he says, pausing theatrically, "I'll die just as surely as if a sword was run through me."
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