Benjamin Lipsitz, whose commitment to the spirit and letter of the law led him to defend a would-be assassin, a Nazi sympathizer and a craven murderer during a career that spanned more than a half-century, died May 10. He was 94.
"He was so fundamentally devoted to justice. He was Atticus Finch all over again," said retired Baltimore County Circuit Judge John Fader II. "To me, he was what lawyering and what representation are all about."
Lipsitz was chosen to defend Arthur Bremer, accused of shooting Democratic presidential candidate George Wallace and three others, including a Secret Service agent, at a Laurel shopping center in 1972.
The attempted assassination dominated radio newscasts as Lipsitz drove to his Baltimore office from a Towson deposition on May 15. As he recalled in a 2007 Sun interview, he knew he might be called on to defend Bremer but assumed a lawyer closer to the crime scene would be tapped.
That night, the phone rang in his Pikesville home. The case was his.
Lipsitz drove to meet his client at the FBI's Baltimore office and found Bremer curled up in the fetal position at the end of a hallway, surrounded by law enforcement officers.
"He was an interesting guy. Kind of sad, really. ... His family was bad news," Lipsitz recalled.
Bremer called his lawyer, "my only friend."
With his daughter, Eleanor J. Lipsitz, as co-counsel, he conducted a strong defense in Prince George's Circuit Court. News accounts at the time remarked on Lipsitz's style, humor and "grueling cross-examination" of the prosecution's expert witnesses.
"He left no stone unturned in defending him," said Eleanor Lipsitz. "We would get up in the morning, drive to Upper Marlboro and then it would be an intense time in court. Then we would drive our tired butts back to the big city and he would spend half the night preparing for the next day."
After a five-day trial, Bremer was convicted in 90 minutes. Lipsitz appealed the 63-year sentence and got it reduced by 10 years. Bremer was released with time off for good behavior in 2007 at the age of 57.
Lipsitz was born in 1919 at Franklin Square Hospital to Russian immigrant parents who fled during the revolution. He grew up on Winner Avenue, across the street from Pimlico Race Course, and attended Baltimore City College, graduating in 1935.
After a short stint at the University of Maryland, College Park, he joined the Army, served in World War II and was discharged as a technical sergeant. He went into a military surplus business and, when it folded, a friend suggested law school.
Lipsitz received his law degree from the University of Baltimore and was admitted to the bar in 1952. During the first 20 years of his legal career he was "mostly out of the limelight," according to a Sun profile at the time of the Bremer trial.
But Lipsitz's reputation within the legal community was established by that time.
In 1959, he unsuccessfully argued a case before the U.S. Supreme Court involving privacy rights and warrantless entries by non-law enforcement officials.
As court-appointed lawyer in 1964, Lipsitz represented James McCloskey, an inmate at Maryland's Patuxent Institution, who alleged that he was denied by prison officials the right to send anti-Semitic letters to elected officials and civil liberties groups.
The Fourth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals rejected McCloskey's claims, but lauded Lipsitz for taking the case even though he was Jewish: "With high fidelity to his duty as an officer of the court, the attorney has urgently and ably presented McCloskey's contentions that he has an absolute right, even in the circumstances of his confinement, to express his beliefs ... As was said of Voltaire, the attorney, who must strongly disagree with McCloskey's anti-Semitic opinions, rushes to the defense of McCloskey's right to hold and express them."
In 1991, Lipsitz again took a difficult case, defending Steven Oken, who sexually assaulted and murdered a Baltimore County newlywed before killing his sister-in-law and fleeing the state to murder another woman. Oken was executed for the Maryland murder in 2004.
"He took cases that no one in their right mind would take because he believed that everyone deserved to be represented," said Eleanor Lipsitz. "He made sure the prosecution played by the rules."
In 1999, he was honored by the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service for his extensive free legal service.
"No matter what he tried, he was as good an attorney as you'd ever want to see," Fader said. "He was always prepared, always knew the law and always knew how to talk to a jury. He was your father, your rabbi, your parent, your bartender, exuding a manner that jurors just nodded their heads, 'Yes, Mr. Lipsitz.' "
When not buried in the law, Lipsitz delighted in helping to coach his granddaughter's Little League baseball team, taking flying lessons, reading history and cheering his favorite baseball team.
"Oh my God, he was a Yankees fan and my mother was furious that he could root for anyone but the Orioles," said his daughter, laughing. "There were some unkind words said when the Orioles played the Yankees."
His wife of 70 years, Eleanor (Plugge) Lipsitz, died in 2012. In addition to his daughter, Lipsitz is survived by granddaughter Christine S. Ramapuram and great-grandson Terrence L. Pickron II, both of Northern Virginia. Services were private.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun