In the time before Buddy Cianci’s Plunder Dome trial in 2002, I met with Richard Egbert, the quintessential take-no-prisoners defense lawyer, and gleaned a telling detail about him (See “Maximum offense,” News, April 12, 2002). Egbert, who died July 24, apparently from a heart attack, while vacationing in upstate New York, was 61.
“A small plaque with a Latin inscription, a gift from a client charged in a large bank fraud case in western Massachusetts, seems inconspicuous among the many nautically themed paintings in Richard M. Egbert’s office on the eighteenth floor of a building in Boston’s financial district. But unlike the demure surroundings, the phrase — which translates to, ‘Act like a Sicilian and think like a Jew’ — bluntly cuts to the combination of aggression and shrewd intelligence for which Egbert is known.
“ ‘After he was acquitted, he sent me that, apparently as what he thought of me,’ the defense lawyer notes dryly. ‘Sometimes I’m not sure how to take it, but I think it was meant as a compliment.’ ”
Egbert had repeatedly returned to Rhode Island over the years, representing such figures as former governor Edward DiPrete, the late North Providence Mayor Sal Mancini, mobster Frank “Bobo” Marrapese, and former state Supreme Court chief justice Joseph Bevilacqua.
The DiPrete case highlighted Egbert’s skills. Although DiPrete, who pleaded guilty in 1998 to 18 counts of bribery, racketeering, and extortion, was hardly a sympathetic figure, Egbert helped to unearth evidence of prosecutorial misconduct — a development that led to the throwing out of the state’s initial case, and, in the end, a relatively light one-year sentence for the disgraced former governor.
And while some might hold little favor for criminal-defense lawyers, Egbert offered a compelling explanation for what motivated him.
As my story recounted, “Egbert’s parents, Manny, a garment worker, and Annette, a housewife, traced their roots to Austria, and he was raised on relatives’ stories of how the Nazis came to power and the resulting genocide of millions of Jews and others. Such stories were still fresh in his mind when Egbert’s tenure as an undergraduate at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in the late ’60s coincided with swelling protests of the Vietnam War and the duplicity of the Nixon administration. The nexus was instrumental, he says, in fostering a sense that the government needed to have people who were going to stand up to it . . .
“ ‘The day that I saw my best friend’s head split open by a baton when he was demonstrating peacefully against the war is a memory that I won’t forget. That was the government out of control on its own citizens, not a foreign policy decision about whether or not they should or should not be in Vietnam. That was the stuff that I only thought you would see in watching a movie about someplace else.’ (The friend received stitches and recovered.)
“Considering this, perhaps it’s not surprising that Egbert calls criminal-defense ‘the best part of the practice of law, where you get a chance to affect peoples’ lives and not worry about money and those kinds of fights, and you get to stand between the government a bit and people.’ Sounding not unlike a libertarian, he says, ‘I think we have too many rules. I think the government is an extremely powerful organization that ought to take particular precautions in not abusing that power. If I can be of help in curbing that in some way, I like it.”
This item was first published July 25 at thephoenix.com/notfornothing.