Russell White

Russell White ( )

Russell J. White, a retired trial attorney who won an acquittal in a nationally watched case in 1980 in which his client was accused of shooting boys throwing snowballs at his house, died of complications from dementia Wednesday at the Heart Home in Lutherville. The Mays Chapel North resident was 85.

"He had a gift that can't be taught in a school. Russ had a wonderful way with juries," said his former law partner, Joseph F. Murphy, who went on to become chief judge of the Court of Special Appeals. "It was as if a jury would invite him in to sit with them. ... Also, nothing took him by surprise."

Born in St. Louis, he was the son of Estil White, a pharmaceutics salesman, and the former Gladys Jones, a Social Security Administration worker. As a young man he boxed, occasionally with Earl Weaver, a friend in junior high school who went on to become a Hall of Fame manager for the Orioles.

He attended two years at the University of Missouri, where he played football, and served in the Army during the Korean War. While in the service, he taught marksmanship at Army schools in San Luis Obispo, Calif., and at Fort Monmouth, N.J.

Mr. White came to Baltimore to attend the University of Maryland School of Law, where he earned a degree and passed the Maryland Bar in 1957. He joined the firm of Venable Baetjer and Howard and as a young associate worked closely with Maryland constitutional scholar H. Vernon Eney.

"Russ connected with both judges and juries forcefully and effectively, in a way that was powerful, yet incredibly smooth. He could charm the heat out of a raging bonfire and was magic in front of a jury. Everyone loved and wanted to be Russ White," said attorney C. Carey Deeley Jr., a friend.

Mr. White later became a Baltimore City assistant state's attorney. He ran unsuccessfully for the Baltimore City Council in 1963 and for Baltimore County state's attorney, again unsuccessfully, in 1966.

"Russ White was an excellent attorney who was always prepared in court," said John F. Fader II , a retired Baltimore County Circuit Court judge. "He had a manner with juries. He made great presentations and could get a jury to understand his viewpoint."

Mr. White established a law practice in Towson in the mid-1960s and became a well-known trial attorney. He practiced with law partners for many years at 305 W. Alleghany Ave.

"My father was good at interrogating people and at confusing his legal adversaries," said a son, Mattie G. White, a Bel Air resident.

In 1974, Mr. White defended Dennis P. Mello, the former commander of the Western police district, on payoff conspiracy charges. Mr. Mello was accused of accepting cash to protect gamblers. He was found not guilty.

Mr. White won national media attention when he defended 68-year-old Roman George Welzant, a retired salesman who lived in the Eastwood section of Dundalk. He was charged with second-degree murder in the shooting of 18-year-old Albert Raymond Kahl on the night of the first snowstorm of 1980. Mr. Welzant was also accused of shooting James K. Willey, who had stomach wounds from a .22-caliber pistol.

The case focused attention on the retired man, who testified that his home was being pelted with snowballs and that he and his wife had been the target of teen pranks for a dozen years.

"The prosecution says that Roman George Welzant was an angry man who overreacted when he went after seven teenagers with a gun the night of January 4 simply because they threw snowballs at his house," according to an account in The Baltimore Sun. "The defense says Mr. Welzant is a frail, 68-year-old man who only took a gun with him when he confronted the teenagers when he feared for his safety and hoped to scare them away from his home."

The trial began May 23, 1980, and ended on June 3 when Mr. Welzant was acquitted of all charges. The jury deliberated 101/2 hours in a case covered by People magazine. Reporter Mike Wallace interviewed Mr. White on "60 Minutes."

"Russell White is playing up to the jurors," said a Sun article, based on a reporter's daily notebook. "Every time he makes a point, he stops and looks toward them and waits for them to look at him."

The Sun also reported that those in the packed Baltimore County Court House expected "Russell White to deliver an emotional 'Perry Mason' finish. They're disappointed. This is real life."

Mr. White retired in 2005.

Family members said he read widely about health foods and exercise. He jogged and rowed in a scull on a lake in southern Pennsylvania. He enjoyed music, dancing, and reading history and historical novels.

"My father lived life to the fullest," said his daughter, Mary Victoria "Mimi" Pizzo of East Hampton, N.Y.

Services will be held at 5 p.m. Saturday at the Ruck Towson Funeral Home, 1050 York Road.

In addition to his son and daughter, survivors include his wife of more than 50 years, the former Janet "Jan" Hutson; another son, Brad H. White of Memphis, Tenn.; and five grandchildren.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com