Bill Connell's Memorial
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Zachary Zwerdling and other attorneys after Bill Connell's Memorial. Attorneys standing from left: Judge John Feeney, Greg Rael, Zachary Zwerdling, Alan Chalfey, Steve Weiss, Jim Steinberg, Neil Sanders; Sitting from Left: Duke Diehl, Bill Bragg[/caption]
Last Friday, Zach Zwerdling delivered remarks at Bill Connell's courtroom memorial service. Mr. Connell was the Chief Public Defender
of Humboldt County from 1965 to 1997. A video of the memorial service can be found here
. Mr. Zwerdling's remarks are pasted below.
To the members of the Bench assembled today for this proceeding, members of the local Bar who are present and especially to the family of Bill Connell, I want to express my gratitude for the opportunity to speak at this memorial and express to Erezia and Lucas, and the rest of Bill’s family, my deepest condolences for your loss.
My relationship with Bill Connell began when I graduated from law school and came to Humboldt County looking for work. I interviewed with Bill in the Fall of 1976. I was very excited to receive a phone call from him the day after the interview extending an offer to work for him as a Deputy Public Defender.
I worked as a Deputy Public Defender under Bill for approximately two years and then went in to private practice. I continued to handle criminal cases after I left the Public Defender’s office and in fact worked with Bill on several matters, including a homicide case. To a large extent because of Bill’s hard work on the case, it was tried and resulted in an acquittal.
It became clear to me fairly early on while working closely with Bill that he was not only an excellent attorney, but a wonderful human being as well.
For those of you who have not worked as a Public Defender, I want to say that it is one of the most challenging and difficult types of legal work. Public Defenders have to deal with unsavory individuals who are often mentally ill and hostile to the fact that they are being represented by a Public Defender. In addition, presenting a case to a jury on behalf of an indigent criminal defendant can be a challenge, since it is often the case the defendant is not a very likable person and most juries assume that they are guilty to start with. Bill accepted the challenges of being a Public Defender with grace and dignity. He was proud of the work we did and never uttered a negative personal comment about any of our clients.
Bill had an uncanny ability to find and hire great lawyers. For example, he hired one of the best lawyers I have ever known in my career, Steve Weiss. Steve Weiss is here today from Santa Rosa. I worked with Steve on many cases before I left the Public Defender’s office. He was a consummate professional and to this day a great mentor. During the same time period Larry Mussitelli, Tom Peterson, Bill Bragg and Greg Rael worked in the office. Each of these talented lawyers also brought amazing dedication and skill to the difficult job of being a Public Defender. As a result, our office had an extraordinary success rate. At one time, it is my understanding that our office was beating the D.A. offer in approximately 50% of the cases that we tried.
After I left the Public Defender’s office, Bill continued to hire excellent attorneys who worked with him until his retirement in 1997, when another of the finest attorneys I have ever known, Jim Steinberg, was hired by Bill. Jim became Public Defender upon Bill’s retirement. Few lawyers I have encountered in my career have the extraordinary intellectual gifts that Jim brought to this work. Jim’s hiring was yet another example of Bill’s masterful ability to find and hire great lawyers.
Another attorney I partnered with later in my career, Duke Diehl, who is here, was hired by Bill and worked in the Public Defender’s office before I started there. Duke as well had great skill as a trial lawyer. He was tough, smart and ethical.
Bill Connell had the ability to see past our resumes and figure out that we were, first of all, committed and dedicated to defending indigent criminal defendants.
I have met very few attorneys in the 38 years since I left the Public Defender’s office that, as a group, compare to the lawyers I worked with in Bill’s office.
Bill’s management style was unique. Bill was not a task master. He would come in to our offices on a regular basis and hand us files. From that point on we would take over the case. Bill was always available to discuss strategy and legal issues. He was not the type of person though that would tell us what to do. His typical response to a question about how to deal with a particular problem was to discuss options and let us make the final call on how to proceed. I think this was an excellent way to manage the office. Among other things, it forced us to work as a team. In the course of working on cases we ended up covering all the necessary bases and did a professional and thorough job defending our clients.
Bill also had wonderful personal qualities. He was not only my boss and my mentor, but he was also a good friend. He attended my wedding in the Bay Area in 1978. He regularly attended birthday and retirement parties for attorneys in the office. Bill was very interested in and supportive of our families.
Lastly, I want to just say a few words about Bill’s courtroom skills. Bill was affectionately referred to by attorneys, Judges and Court staff as the Silver Fox. I always thought that was a great way to describe him. The silver probably came from his gray hair, but the fox came from his uncanny ability to spot issues in a case and to deal with them in a quiet but effective fashion that, more times than not, resolved the issue and led the way to a great result for his clients either in terms of negotiating a deal or trying the case.
Bill was also a gentleman. I only remember him showing anger on one occasion. He tried a felony case with a Deputy District Attorney who had a reputation for not complying with “in limine” orders regarding introduction of evidence or references to prejudicial information. This Deputy D.A. would regularly violate “in limine” court orders and, as a result, those of us who tried cases against this attorney were always careful to prepare and file “in limine” motions that were very specific about the areas that we felt should not be allowed in as evidence. The Deputy D.A, who, by the way, would have been fired by Maggie Fleming if she was D.A. at the time, did it yet once again during his trial with Bill. Once Bill calmed down he managed to talk the Court into threatening to dismiss the case and thereafter obtained a great disposition for his client.
Over Bill’s last few years we did not interact as much as I would have liked. I did see him at several Bar functions and talked to him at Bar luncheons. He always had a smile on his face and was incredibly charming and witty.
I feel like Humboldt County has lost one of its great courtroom lions.