Guest Columns

Judge Kane has set the highest of standards

GUEST COLUMNIST

“I want to tell this next generation that the philosophers were right; that St. Francis, Buddha, Muhammad, Maimonides – all spoke the truth when they said the way to serve yourself is to serve others. And that Aristotle was right, before them, when he said that the only way to assure your happiness is to give.”

U.S. District Judge John L. Kane
50th Class Reunion
University of Denver College of Law
May 22, 2010

It was a great thrill to read the Denver Post article about John and see him getting the credit he deserves for his many years of fighting for justice and serving others. He has had a continuing and powerful influence on me for almost fifty years.

When I got out of the Army in the spring of 1963, totally adrift, I ended up going to law school at CU Boulder. It was a dreary experience dominated by what I felt were Ivory Tower professors who seemed to have little interest in real world problems. Then, near the end of my senior year, along came John Kane. He was the public defender of Adams County at a time when there were only two public defender offices in Colorado — Adams County and Denver — plus a part-time office in Durango. It wasn’t until 1970 when the legislature created a statewide system.

I was taking a criminal practice course taught by Jim Carrigan and Don MacDonald, the highlight of my law school experience. John came to talk to our class and mentioned that he had an insanity trial the next day and needed someone to help prepare for the psychiatrist. I jumped at the chance.

That night there was a sudden violent spring snowstorm; the drive to Brighton the next morning was a nightmare of snowdrifts and broken branches. It was like an omen that this Brighton experience would be like life changing.

I found John and we went to the courtroom where Lyle Dale Surratt, our mousy looking client was waiting. He had been charged with sexually assaulting his children. Soon the courtroom was full of one of the most extraordinary cast of characters you could imagine.
Jean Jacobucci was the District Judge, a distinguished looking Italian with swept back grey hair. Although not a great legal scholar, he had an uncanny ability to focus on the core of the case and he always did what was fair and just.

Harlan Bockman was the Assistant District Attorney, a low key but very capable trial lawyer who really ran the District Attorney’s office. He subsequently served more than 30 years as a highly respected District Judge.

Floyd Marks was the DA. Volatile but very generous and caring when you got to know him, he would charge in and out of the courtroom throughout the trial. At one point, he slammed the little swinging gate between the trial area and where the spectators sit, shattering it.

Dr. Henry Frey was the psychiatrist. A Harvard graduate, he was the Director of the Adams County Mental Health Center and the leader of the growing movement to develop a statewide community health center system as an alternative to warehousing so many people in the two state hospitals.

Little did I know that all these characters were about to become a major part of my life.

Shortly after the trial ended with Surratt having been found insane, John offered me a job at $500 a month. I had been negotiating with one of the 17th Street law firms about going to work for them and helping open an office on the Western Slope where I’d grown up, and was to meet with Ed Benton from the firm after finishing my Wills and Estates exam. Unable to concentrate, I finally I walked out of the middle of the exam, called Ed and said that I had decided to take John’s offer. Despite what seemed like tacky behavior on my part, Ed remains a very close friend and has always said that I made the right choice by going to work for John.

After only a few months in the Public Defender’s office, John brought me into the George Titsworth murder case. Titsworth had two older, married brothers who were miners in Leadville. They came to visit him and after lots of drinking, there was a vicious argument during which one brother hit George in the face with the butt of a rifle. As the two brothers and their wives were driving away, George opened fire with the rifle and killed one of the wives. He fled, hid out for several days and was then arrested and charged with first-degree murder.

The jury was qualified for the death penalty and eventually the key witness, one of the brothers testified. After the direct examination, we took a lunch break and John and I went to Jordinelli’s, a local restaurant where he announced that he didn’t feel well and that I should do the cross examination. “But, John,” I said. “I just got out of law school.”

“Are you a lawyer or aren’t you?” he responded. Although momentarily terrified, I had been thinking about the cross examination of this witness for weeks so I was actually well prepared. However, I will always be grateful to John for the trust he placed in me.

John sets a standard that you have to live up to, whether you’re working for him or just a friend. One of the most important things you can say to yourself is that John would approve of what you are doing. That’s a standard I learned from him and will always try to live up to.

Morgan Smith went to work for John Kane in the fall of 1966. When Kane joined the Peace Corps in 1967, Smith was appointed Public Defender of Adams County. He can be reached at Morgan-smith@comcast.net.