Gerry Spence, a Wyoming trial lawyer, has been looming large in the West for a number of years. But it was the eastern media -- Esquire, "60 Minutes," Time -- that lately put him on the celebrity map. And now Spence is laying out his own Interstate of achievements.
I don't say that as a put-down. Spence has an ego as large as the land sweeps of his native Wyoming. But among the nation's other hot-dog trial lawyers who have written well of their dizzying courtroom conquests -- Louis Nizer, F. Lee Bailey -- Spence has almost a charming modesty. He struts and preens: "I had become a lawyer the nation was watching." And he pins awards on his large cowboy chest: "I have become the master gamesman." But the prideful dazzle is not offered as his core, but only as the outer hide that must be there anyway. Why not make it look good, as long as the interior chaos and moral failings of his life are shown, too?
As they are. On the way to becoming the trial lawyer who at first skinned Penthouse magazine for $26.5 million in a case involving a Wyoming beauty queen (a judgment overturned on appeal) and who beat the Kerr-McGee Corp. in the Karen Silkwood case, Spence didn't seem to be much more than a random assemblage of urges and deceits. He walked out on his wife of 21 years, saying to the end that she was a good woman and he loved her. He says of his four children: "They were the victims. I have not wanted to admit it lest they use the admission as an excuse someday for their own failures, but it is true. They are the victims."
While selling out wife and family, he was hiring out to insurance companies, in personal injury cases. From 1962, about eight years after graduating from the University of Wyoming Law School, to 1969 Spence seldom lost a case. One night in the supermarket, he chanced upon an old man he had beaten recently in a trial. A drunken driver had hit the man. Spence won the case for the insurance company. At the checkout counter, Spence sees that "each step he took hurt him. I could feel the pain. I felt it in my heart. I felt sorrow."
The next day, Spence told a colleague that he would never again represent an insurance company, bank or corporation. "The system works for the insurance company lawyers," he writes. "And the lawyers for the companies are among the state's finest citizens, always good men, usually from prestigious firms. And these men control the legislature, make solid arguments to their fellow legislators about laws that need passing, for the people, they say, so the insurance premiums won't be so high. But the new laws usually make the winning of cases by these insurance company lawyers even easier, and the insurance rates never go down. Everyone knows that -- the laws are for profits for the companies, for bigger, bulging company coffers, for taller skyscrapers in Boston and Providence and New York City -- for more profit squeezed out of the misery of the very people who always elect these good men."
Spence has been a born-again populist since 1969. Instead of gunning for bucks, he set out to gun for justice for little-guy clients. He still earns higher stacks of dollars than he'll ever need from contingency fees.
The money haunts Spence. He doesn't seem to know whether to enjoy it, give it away in spiritual detachment or become more confused about the whole issue. The latter course is the one he's taking right now. "It is the Christian idea," he says, referring to his pious mother and a lawyer named Danny Sheehan from Washington's Christic Institute who brought Spence into the Silkwood case, "that one must suffer a life of poverty to do good. If life is sweet, there has not been enough giving. If life is easy, it must be wrong. Pleasure only in the smallest doses is acceptable. And I am my mother's son, sad for the poor, feeling deeply for the helpless. But I cannot help the poor if I am powerless. I cannot throw a life preserver to save them until I am myself securely on the shore."
So who's accusing Spence of being a cold-hearted rich man? Nobody that he mentions. For his guilt trip, he has packed his own suitcases. He could have been unsettled by the two priests -- a Jesuit and a Franciscan -- who came with Sheehan to help at the Silkwood trial. But Spence doesn't report that they confronted him.
Spence needs to relax and be easier on himself. The candor of his writing -- it is painfully confessional at times -- puts him among the few autobiographers who is harder on himself than others. It's a tricky way of being his own prosecutor: By revealing his own weaknesses he deprives you of exposing them, and perhaps others that might turn up. It's literary plea bargaining.
The tactic can't be resisted on intellectual issues either. Spence is against the death penalty, but, lawyer-like, he condones the killing of some criminals as a matter of "survival, self defense." At the end of one murder trial, he sums up: "The most important thing in this world is life, the right to live . . . 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. They are our enemies and our right to live under such circumstances is supreme to theirs. It's that simple."
And perhaps simplistic. The jury bought this reasoning and returned the death penalty against the murderer Spence was opposing.
Ten years from now, I can imagine another conversion for Spence, this time leading the fight against capital punishment. If so, the fervor of his convictions, which he displays on every page of this well-written chronicle, will be as gripping as the events that shaped those beliefs.