For most of the month-long trial, Ted Wells, Scooter Libby's high-priced attorney, had been all smiles. He laughed. He shared light moments with the judge, the jury and with his opponent, special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald. At one point Wells and Fitzgerald were so palsy-walsy, Judge Reggie B. Walton chastised them.

Yesterday, in his closing argument, he struck a much different note. Speaking to the jury, Wells said Libby "has been in my protection for the past month."

Now, he told them, he was turning Libby over to them.

Then, as he asked the jury to presume Libby's innocence and "give him back to me," Wells began to cry. He sat down at the defense table and wiped his eyes.

It was a strange moment in a strange case.

Before beginning his argument yesterday morning, he paced in front of the empty jury box. He stood in a corner --tall, athletic, mustachioed -- like a fighter imaging the bout to come. Under the outwardly gentle guise you could see an inner toughness of someone who will use any combination of punches to win big.

Family and friends came to watch him work. At one point he stopped to check on his 83-year-old mother, Phyllis, who sat in a wheelchair in the courtroom aisle.

There were moments when he seemed out of sync, checking on how much time he had left, hurrying through slides in his PowerPoint presentation.

At other times, he was impressive, trying to convince the jury that the prosecution was attempting to ruin Libby based on a few conversations with reporters. In charcoal suit, white shirt and red tie, he marched through pertinent evidence, occasionally lapsing into shtick.

He said he didn't agree with the way the prosecution portrayed his opening argument. "Maybe I was drunk or something," he said, working the jury like a Jay Leno audience.

"Ted has a wonderful demeanor," says Stanley M. Brand, a Washington litigator who has worked with Wells. "He's a master tactician. He's a bulldog, but in a gentle way."

Brand considers Wells -- a native Washingtonian who is a partner in the New York-based firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison -- to be "one of the five best trial lawyers in the country."

Wells would not sit for an interview for this story. But through conversations and e-mails with friends, colleagues, his mother and others who know him well, a portrait emerges of a tough defense attorney who has mastered the balance between easygoing and hard-charging.

Often he stands up for the Big Guy, comforting the comfortable. When some political or corporate hotshot has been charged with white-collar wrongdoing, Wells is likely to come to the defense. He has championed the causes of ExxonMobil, Schering-Plough and Carnival cruise lines.

After all, somebody has got to do it.

He's had victories. He successfully represented Clinton administration agriculture secretary Mike Espy and former senator Robert Torricelli. In 1987, he represented Raymond J. Donovan, a former Reagan administration labor secretary, and others on fraud charges. When the prosecution rested, Wells did not put any defense witnesses on the stand, a minimalist maneuver for which he's famous. The jury announced 137 acquittals.

In 1999, Brand called Wells in as a fireman in the case of Clinton-Gore fundraiser Franklin Haney, who was in court on 42 counts of election law fraud. "Ted and I went to trial," says Brand. "Boom! Forty-two acquittals."

Wells has had failure, too. In 2001 he represented Mitsubishi in a criminal antitrust case. The company was accused of price-fixing. One reason he lost the case, he has said, is because a week before jury deliberations began, the movie "Pearl Harbor" came out.

Born in Washington in 1950, Theodore V. Wells Jr. grew up in a small rowhouse in Northwest. His mother -- known in the neighborhood as Ma Wells -- still lives there. "He was like an all-American boy," Phyllis Wells says of her son. "He didn't give me trouble."

She was a mailroom clerk at the Department of the Navy for 35 years. His father was a taxi driver with a sixth-grade education. When Wells was very young, his parents split. He was raised by his mother. He has a younger sister, Toni, who lives in the District, and several half-brothers and sisters from his father's other marriages.

"He did extremely well in school," his mother remembers. She says he kept track of his grades on a piece of paper and would make out his own report card before the official one was issued. Once in elementary school he received a grade he felt he didn't deserve. He went to the teacher, pointed out the error and she changed the grade. "He knew how to argue his case," Phyllis Wells says, "even back then."

At Coolidge High School, he was passionate about football. He played center. He was smart enough to help call the plays, recalls Wells's coach, Phillip Gainous, and was strong enough to protect the quarterback.

"He was a tough guy," Gainous says. "One time he broke his coccyx -- his tailbone. He didn't miss any games. We made a doughnut for him by cutting a hole in a piece of foam. We stuck it down his pants and sent him in. He played through the pain."

Gainous, now the principal at Blair High School, says that Wells was not an arguer. "But he would," Gainous says laughing, "debate with you."

At 6-feet-2 and 225 pounds, Wells was offered various college athletic scholarships. He chose Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. After his first year, Wells quit the team to focus on academics.

About Wells "there was a kind of intensity I recognized early on," says Holy Cross classmate Edward P. Jones, a fellow Washingtonian who went on to win the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

As freshmen, Jones and Wells roomed in the same dorm. Jones remembers that one time he and Wells and several other students borrowed a car to go to New York to meet with law-school recruiters at Fordham University. The caffeine-fueled driver was sophomore and future Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

Wells graduated from college in 1972 and from Harvard University in 1976 with degrees in law and business. Along the way he married his high school sweetheart, Nina Mitchell. They were both 21. Today she is the secretary of state for New Jersey. They have two children: Teresa, 28, and Phillip, 26.

He worked for several New Jersey law firms over the years. He was national treasurer for Sen. Bill Bradley's presidential run in 2000. That same year became co-chair of the Paul Weiss litigation department.

He is proud of his longtime association with the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. Last year, according to the National Law Journal, he helped defend desegregation education programs in two cases before the Supreme Court.

He also prides himself on being one of the rare trial lawyers in the country with a national jury trial practice. Last year the National Law Journal named him Lawyer of the Year.

Longtime friend Vernon Jordan called Wells up on Super Bowl Sunday and asked him over to his house to eat some chili and watch the game. Wells thanked him but said he was too busy preparing for the Libby case. "He works very hard," Jordan says.

And as for Wells's demeanor, Jordan says, "you don't have to be an [expletive] to win cases."

Washington attorneys took the day off yesterday to watch his big-league matchup with Fitzgerald. Wells -- who didn't put Libby on the stand -- argued that his client is an innocent man with a bad memory. Fitzgerald said Libby lied under oath.

There in the middle of the courtroom, Wells was playing center again, helping call the plays and protecting the guy with the ball. Laughing in the beginning, crying in the end.