If the case is big and controversial and involves the government and the Bill of Rights — even, and maybe especially, if television cameras are around — Denver attorney David Lane is a good bet to end up in the middle of things.
He is the attorney who gets enough hate mail to fuel a nice bonfire — the attorney for Ward Churchill. And, now, he is the attorney for Richard Heene, the father of "Balloon Boy" — and he wasted no time speaking publicly about the case.
But don't be confused. He isn't a blow-dried, tassel-loafered television talking head. He's a courtroom grunt, an attorney admired for his workload and his intellect, a lawyer who isn't afraid of unsavory clients or worried about what anyone thinks of him.
And he's a true believer.
That everyone — everyone — deserves an attorney. That the horrors visited on his Jewish family in Nazi Germany could happen in the United States. That no criminal is as dangerous as a government that can do whatever it wants.
Some attorneys are loath to take on certain clients.
"I certainly believe that anybody accused of a crime deserves to have a lawyer — and that is constitutional — but there's nothing in the Constitution that says it has to be me," said attorney, talk-show host and former prosecutor Craig Silverman. "If a guy is a mad-dog vicious rapist killer, you can find somebody other than me to be his lawyer."
Lane sees redeeming value in everyone, a view that was forged during seven years spent as a public defender in Brooklyn, N.Y.
"When you're working as a public defender, and you see the things that your clients do, you can't help but understand — not necessarily excuse what they do — but understand how they got to where they got, and that's a life-changing insight," Lane said. "When you see the problems of poverty and race and just the despair in the ghettos of Brooklyn for seven years, you come away with different insights into the world than people who are not exposed to those things."
Tall and lanky, he looks professional in court, casual out of it. A recent day at his downtown Denver office found him in a faded pair of jeans and a pullover sweater. But he is incredibly busy — as the clutter in his office can attest.
"Nobody that I know of goes to trial more than he does," Silverman said. "He is a combat veteran."
And though he has a well-deserved reputation for representing people on the left side of the political spectrum — notably, former University of Colorado professor Churchill — that's not all he does.
He successfully defended former Jefferson County Treasurer Mark Paschall on corruption charges. And he has twice stood up for anti-tax crusader Douglas Bruce in his fights with Colorado Springs officials, first over public access to city hall and then over the petition rules for ballot measures.
"I admire his dedication to principle," Bruce said. "That's what I'm interested in. He's somebody that puts it on the line, so to speak, for things he believes in. I do the same, and therefore I admire anybody who isn't just a blowhard."
"He's the kind of guy you love or hate," said defense attorney David Wymore, who, like Lane, is a vocal opponent of the death penalty.
Plenty of people hate him. Lane doesn't care.
He sees his work as the highest possible calling — fighting for the U.S. Constitution.
"The personal issue of 'do I like a client, do I not like a client,' is meaningless," Lane said. "I happen to like Ward Churchill a lot. But I like the First Amendment better than I like anybody. That's what it's about.
"I've represented Nazis. I've represented communists. I've represented atheists. I've represented religious fanatics. I've represented Satan worshipers, conservatives, Democrats. Even my friends said, 'You represented Douglas Bruce, and that's a little too far.' I represent the Constitution of the United States of America."
To understand Lane, you must start at the beginning.
He grew up in a Jewish family — an uncle and his mother escaped the Nazis after other relatives were slaughtered. Throughout his childhood, one message was repeated: "Don't for one minute think that something like that could not happen in the United States."
He experienced the civil-rights movement as a teenager, and lived through the fear of being assigned a draft lottery number during the Vietnam War, which led him to write a "nasty 18-year-old-boy letter to the draft board saying, 'I'm a conscientious objector.'
"They said, 'No, you're not.' I said, 'Well, I guess we'll just see, won't we?' Push never came to shove, but back in those days, if you were an 18-year-old, you had to seriously consider your relationship with your government."
After earning a political science degree at the University of Colorado and a law degree at the University of California, Berkeley, and spending seven years in Brooklyn, he came home in 1987 and opened his own practice, specializing in criminal defense work.
He slowly immersed himself in the world of civil rights, which today makes up 80 percent of his practice. The other 20 percent is criminal defense — almost all of that death penalty work. He travels the country lecturing, and he takes on difficult trials, such as the 2008 case of Juan Quintero in Houston, who shot a police officer seven times, killing him.
The aim was to keep Quintero from a death sentence — and Lane and the man's other attorneys prevailed after convincing the jury that he was insane and had a brain abnormality. Quintero, whose defense was paid for by the Mexican government, is serving life without parole.
"It was an unbelievable experience trying a death penalty case in the capital of the death penalty capital," Lane said. "If Houston were a state, it would be the second-leading executor in the country behind Texas."
In Colorado, if there's a case where the government and the Constitution clash, Lane is often the attorney at the flashpoint. Whether it's a teacher on a classroom tirade against George W. Bush or the Rainbow Family's members fighting to get into a court hearing or the Hells Angels angry about being roused out of their clubhouse — or even the "Balloon Boy" — Lane is often the man in the middle.
And of all the controversial clients he has ever represented, none has been quite like Churchill, fired by CU after questions were raised about his scholarship. But those questions first arose after the emergence of an essay in which Churchill referred to some victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks as "little Eichmanns."
For Lane, it was a clear-cut First Amendment issue — he believed Churchill was fired not for plagiarism or fabrication, as CU leaders claimed, but for his speech.
And Lane won, sort of, when a jury sided with him, although the judge later issued a ruling tossing out the verdict. That case is still on appeal, and things may change.
One thing that hasn't changed is the way Lane has been attacked for representing Churchill. Like the day he sat with a client, in prison for second-degree murder and facing a first-degree murder charge for a slaying behind bars.
"This guy's doing second-degree murder time, facing the death penalty, and he says, 'Can I ask you a personal question?' " Lane recalled. "I said, 'Sure.' He said, 'No offense, but how do you represent a scumbag like Ward Churchill?' "
Churchill himself remains confident in Lane: "Bottom line at this point?" he wrote in an e-mail to The Denver Post. "I've no reason to change my view of David Lane's prowess as a trial lawyer. Quite the opposite, in fact. My assessment has been reinforced."
But Lane is not only all about high-profile cases. Next on his calendar is a client accused of violating a restraining order.
Attorneys who have gone up against him view his propensity to say what's on his mind with a mixture of bemusement and admiration. One opposing attorney declined to talk about him, expressing frustration that he so often ends up in the middle of the circus. Another admitted that his public statements can be bothersome.
"There are those attorneys that utilize the media to their advantage to promote their client or their case," said Jefferson County District Attorney Scott Storey. "Obviously that is frustrating to prosecutors because we are very limited in what we can talk about."
Patrick O'Rourke, head of litigation for CU, faced off against Lane in the Churchill case and came away impressed with his courtroom work.
"David is a very good lawyer," O'Rourke said. "He's probably one of the better cross-examiners I've ever faced. I think the greatest asset that he has for him — but some people might consider it a detriment — is he's absolutely fearless. He doesn't care what witnesses think about him. He doesn't care what juries think about him. He doesn't care what judges think about him."
For Lane, standing in front of the camera, or a reporter with a notebook, is another form of advocacy for his clients.
"The Heene case is a good example," Lane said. "There is a presumption of guilt in the mind of the public, and I view it as helpful to my clients for me to be putting out their side of the story to whatever degree I possibly can if it's going to be helpful to the case."
In the final analysis, for Lane, it is about the Constitution — and the belief that everyone needs to follow the rules. "People read this and they say, 'Are you in favor of terrorism, are you in favor of murder?' The answer is, 'Of course not,' " Lane said. But worse, in his view, is an unchecked government.
"My one job every single day, every single case, is to control the government," he said.
"I am in the business of controlling the government. That's all I do in every one of those cases. And if they can play fair and they get my client, OK, you know, if they play fair.
But if they can't do it fairly, under the law, I will walk this person out the front of the courthouse because the most dangerous entity on earth is a government that has the ability to do whatever it wants whenever it wants without control."
Represented by the Denver attorney:
J.R. Smith of the Denver Nuggets
Lane defended the player in a case in which he was accused of spraying champagne on a woman, spitting on her and tearing her dress. Smith ultimately pleaded "no contest" to a misdemeanor assault charge and received a deferred sentence.
Lane took on Denver police twice, first after they raided the motorcycle gang's clubhouse in 2001 and then after a 2005 incident in which scores of officers responded to a traffic stop. Lane won a total of $64,000 in settlements.
Lane has won a ruling allowing him to question former Vice President Dick Cheney about a 2006 incident in which Howards told him U.S. policy in Iraq was "disgusting." Howards sued after alleging U.S. Secret Service agents violated his rights when they arrested him after he touched Cheney while decrying the war in Iraq.
Lane won reinstatement for the Overland High teacher after he was suspended following a lecture in which he compared President George W. Bush to Adolf Hitler and was critical of U.S. foreign policy and capitalism. Bennish promised to give balanced viewpoints in future lectures.
Lane won settlements with the Colorado Rockies, Major League Baseball and the city of Denver after Eyre was arrested in October 2007 selling T-shirts outside Coors Field emblazoned with "Rocktober." Lane showed she had obtained a trademark on the phrase.
Lane fought, along with his law partner, Darold Killmer, to win public access to the courtroom after numerous members of the group were cited on charges of illegal camping. Because the courtroom was small, the government had turned people away from the trials, something Lane said amounted to "secret proceedings."
Lane fought the potential expulsion of the Cherokee Trail High senior who was arrested after she brought a fake rifle to school that she planned to use in drills with a youth Marines group. District officials decided the 10 days she was suspended were punishment enough.