The Life and Legacy of Attorney Gerry Spence
“The true test of liberty,” argued attorney Gerry Spence, “is the right to test it, the right to question it, the right...to ask, ‘Are we free?’"
With his signature fringed cowboy jacket and bold shock of white hair, Gerry Spence looks like the maverick he is. As one of America's greatest attorneys, Gerry Spence has spent a lifetime fighting to preserve our rights and freedoms.
A Different Job
Born in Laramie, Wyoming in 1929, Spence’s journey as an attorney began with his graduation with honors from the University of Wyoming Law School in 1952. Beginning his career in Wyoming, Spence started out as a defense attorney for the insurance industry.
What changed Spence’s life was a man in a grocery line. It was the evening after a trial victory for Spence and the insurance company he represented. As one of the West’s best defense attorneys, Spence did his job well. Although he knew the plaintiff had not been at fault, Spence won the case for his client.
That’s when he happened to go to Safeway and see the plaintiff ahead of him in the checkout line. Speaking of the old man, Spence said, “I could see his painful eyes. Pain was on his face, and I said to him, ‘I’m sorry.’” The plaintiff said back, “That’s all right, Mr. Spence. You were just doing your job.”
From that moment on, Gerry Spence decided that he would be doing a different job. Never again would he represent an insurance company, a large corporation, or the government. Growing up after the Depression had shown Spence that the government, the corporations, and the banks often operate without regard to justice.
Spence determined he would fight against that system. It worked. As a prosecutor and as a defense attorney, Spence never lost a case. Spence holds the distinction of having won more criminal cases than any other lawyer in the U.S.
Compassion in the Courtroom: The Karen Silkwood Case
Gerry Spence rose to national prominence in the suit brought by the estate of Karen Silkwood against Kerr-McGee, a corporation that ran a fuel fabrication plant. Karen Silkwood’s job was to make plutonium pellets for nuclear reactors. Concerned about workers’ safety, Silkwood joined the union and began documenting violations at the plant.
Around that time, Silkwood discovered that her body contained more than 400 times the limit for plutonium exposure. She was literally breathing out plutonium. Hours before she was to meet with a reporter for the New York Times, Silkwood died in a fatal car crash whose circumstances have never been resolved.
Gerry Spence agreed to represent the Silkwood family against Kerr-McGee. Spence presented extensive evidence from Silkwood’s autopsy and witness testimony from employees testifying to the slipshod nature of the company’s safety standards. Kerr-McGee’s defense? Karen Silkwood had poisoned herself with plutonium just to make them look bad.
The jury did not agree. They awarded the Silkwood estate $505,000 in damages and ten million dollars in punitive damages, a decision later upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. Gerry Spence fought for Silkwood, but more than that, he fought against a corporation that put its own profits ahead of workers’ safety.
Gerry Versus the Government: Defending Randy Weaver
Gerry Spence observed, “We are defined by how we use our power.” Not surprisingly, some of Gerry Spence’s most defining moments as an attorney came from his defenses of individuals against the power of the government.
For eleven days in 1992, a man named Randy Weaver held off agents of the U.S. Marshals Service and the FBI. Weaver had failed to appear on firearms charges, and when U.S. Marshals appeared on Weaver’s property, a shootout began. Weaver surrendered, but the showdown with the U.S. government resulted in the deaths of Weaver’s wife and child as well as a deputy U.S. Marshal, W.F. Degan.
During the federal criminal trial that followed, Randy Weaver would be represented by Attorney Gerry Spence. Accusing government agencies, including the FBI, of criminal wrongdoing, Spence won the case, demonstrating that the FBI and its crime lab had mishandled both the standoff and the evidence.
Relying only on internal contradictions in the prosecution’s narrative, Spence won the case. He never had to call a witness for the defense. In later civil suits, the Weaver family would win an out-of-court settlement totaling approximately $3.1 million dollars.
The Spence Law Firm: Fighting from the Heart
“Corporations do not make up this country,” said Gerry Spence. “People do.” In his work throughout his life, Gerry Spence fought for the people, including a quadriplegic man against a major insurance company and a small family ice cream company against McDonald’s.
The author of over seventeen books, Gerry Spence has made a lifelong commitment to sharing his experience. Spence founded the Trial Lawyers College, where he had his pro bono staff train lawyers to work on behalf of the people.
Most vitally, the Spence Law Firm carries on this powerful legacy of compassion. Like their founder, the members of the Spence Law Firm are driven to fight for justice. Contact the Spence Law Firm for experienced legal counsel in personal injury, wrongful death, or other complex cases. We will fight for you and what is right.