Dave Simpson: One Fascinating Day in Jackson

in Dave Simpson/Column

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By Dave Simpson, columnist

An old swivel chair in a famous lawyer’s office came to mind last week when I read an obituary in our local paper.

The obituary was for Edward Moriarity, 79, for years a partner of famed Wyoming lawyer Gerry Spence. Moriarity died of pancreatic cancer January 4 in Missoula, Montana.

Spence and Moriarity were front-page news back in the 1980s and ’90s, winning jury verdicts for the family of Karen Silkwood against energy giant Kerr-McGee, for Wyoming coed Kim Pring against Penthouse Magazine, and successfully defending Ruby Ridge standoff survivor Randy Weaver against the U.S. government.

They also served as special prosecutors in the 1977 bombing deaths of Evanston attorney Vincent Vehar, his wife Beverly, and son John, and the 1979 torture killing of informant Jeffrey Green near Rock Springs. Thirty sticks of dynamite demolished the Vehar home. And Green’s body had 140 burn marks on it, a burned out eye, “T” burned repeatedly in it for “traitor,” and a bullet wound to the neck.

Spence and Moriarity were asked to investigate and prosecute the case by Vehar’s son Tony, who survived the blast, and District Judge C. Stuart Brown of Kemmerer.

Mark Hopkinson was found guilty in 1979 of arranging all four deaths. He received consecutive life prison terms for the Vehar deaths, and the death penalty for Jeffrey Green’s killing.

Hopkinson was on Death Row when an editor and columnist for the Casper Star-Tribune, Bob Messenger, interviewed him in 1981, and wrote columns in which Hopkinson professed his innocence. The paper was then contacted by Spence, suggesting that Messenger come to his office in Jackson Hole to hear the complete story.

I was an assistant city editor at the Star-Tribune at the time, and they sent me along with Messenger, to have another set of eyes and ears in the room.

We arrived about noon, and had to be buzzed in through a security door. We were told the windows were bulletproof glass. Hopkinson, after all, had been convicted of ordering the death of Jeffrey Green from a California prison, so strict precautions were necessary.

Making the point that “a dog won’t eat with dogs it doesn’t trust,” Spence had sandwiches ready for us when we arrived. (Avocado sandwiches, a first for me, but I figured folks in Jackson ate like that all the time.) Spence had a Near Beer with his lunch, taking care to point out that it was non-alcohol beer. He had given up drinking years before.

Spence seated Messenger in an old swivel chair in his office. The chair, he told us, was formerly the courtroom chair of District Judge H.R. Christmas, who presided over the first case Spence argued in court. And that chair, Spence told us, was the only payment he received for investigating the Vehar and Green murders and prosecuting Hopkinson – two years of work for his firm.

The first time Messenger leaned back in that old swivel chair, it tipped backwards like a catapult. Bob’s arms went up and his legs shot out to keep from falling over backwards.

“That’s the same thing that used to happen to the judge!” Spence said, with what looked to me like glee in his eyes.

From then on, Messenger sat on the very front of the swivel chair, like a school kid paying close attention, trying to keep from tipping backwards.

After lunch, Spence said he wanted his partner “Eddie,” Ed Moriarity, to join us, because he had a thorough, up-to-date knowledge of the details of the case, and the subsequent appeal.

One of the most fascinating afternoons of my years as a newsman followed, with Messenger posing questions about Hopkinson’s claims of innocence, and Moriarity batting each one down for a variety of reasons, citing sworn testimony and evidence presented at the trial.

He had what looked like a photographic memory. Spence chimed in when a point needed to be emphasized, but “Eddie” did most of the talking, and he was stunningly prepared and persuasive. In his book “Gunning for Justice,” Spence called Moriarity, who grew up in the tough mining town of Butte, Montana, “a diamond in the rough.”

Folks back then said Spence was so successful in court because he “mesmerized” juries. We asked him about that, and he said the main reason for his success was the exhaustive preparation done long before any case went to trial. That afternoon in Jackson, the key role Moriarity played in their success could not have been more obvious.

As I recall, the fire went out of Bob Messenger’s Death Row columns with Mark Hopkinson after that. Hopkinson was executed by lethal injection on January 22, 1992, at the penitentiary in Rawlins, proclaiming his innocence to the end.

One last point about that old swivel chair in Gerry Spence’s office.

No one will ever convince me that Spence – the master of meticulous preparation – didn’t loosen the spring adjustment underneath that swivel chair to keep Bob on edge all afternoon.

Dave Simpson can be contacted at davesimpson145@hotmail.com

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