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'My Lawyer!' A legendary Baltimore public defender retires

Most lawyer awards are fluff. They are generally handed out by bar associations, civic groups and the like to insiders and connected folks. The awards too often recognize average practitioners rather than pioneers. This year's Maryland Criminal Defense Attorney Association's Fred Bennett Award for zealous advocacy, handed out in June, was an exception. The winner was Louis Brendan Curran, my colleague. Lou, who retires this month, is a deserving recipient. He's a legend, a firebrand who left his mark on Baltimore.

Lou's legal career has been devoted to public service. He has worked in the Maryland Public Defender's Office for the past 30 years. Since 1995, Lou has labored in the Baltimore City Felony Trial Division, where I now work. In our unit, we handle criminal cases for indigent clients that range in nature from drug offenses all the way up to murder. It takes fortitude and dedication to make it 30 years here. Anyone who's practiced criminal law in Baltimore in the 2000s knows Lou and his iconic ways.

As defense lawyers, we are also investigators. We visit crime scenes (sometimes with private detectives) to delve into certain cases. Lou was known to do his own “middle of the night investigations” all over town to get a truer feeling of places and events. Safety was only a minor concern to Lou, who, despite being a small Irish American, has always been savvy enough to avoid sticky situations.

Speaking of crime scene visits, Lou did one last summer that garnered national attention. Perhaps you saw the controversial body worn camera video that went viral in which a Baltimore cop claimed to “reenact” his discovery of a drug stash. Well, that was Lou's case. He uncovered the cop's mishap and quickly ran out to the scene to better understand the area. After our litigation team was alerted, Lou's client's case was soon dropped. The cop now faces criminal charges of evidence tampering. Lou never really took any credit for the work.

Catching Lou in action in court was a sight to behold. Never to be accused of being a man of high fashion, you'd be lucky to see Lou in a full suit. Usually, a blazer and khakis comprised his uniform. It didn't matter though. Lou knew his cases like no one else because of his preparation; his arguments and gregarious personality were at the core of his representation.

Whether he was grilling a witness on the stand or addressing a judge, he was fearless and creative. At times, you didn't know whether to laugh or gawk in awe at the sheer passion that Lou poured into his orations. When defendants enter guilty pleas, a series of questions has to be answered to assure that they are pleading knowingly and voluntarily. Most Baltimore judges pawn this task off to defense attorneys or more pointedly, a public defender, if one is present. To say that Lou gave a detailed and thorough rendition of this “advisement” is an understatement. We're talking Gettysburg Address proportions. Lou's lack of brevity was so well known that we'd all volunteer for the task to preempt him. To his credit, Lou never abbreviated his shtick.

Lou was forever testing the limits of the justice system, knowing how oppressive it can be to our clients. He'd visit his incarcerated clients at all hours of the night. Not surprisingly, Lou would get stuck waiting for corrections officers on his visits, since they weren't exactly expecting to have to work on their red eye shifts. Lou would document the access restrictions he faced in nearly weekly emails to the entire office. At one point, due to to some “disagreement,” Lou was banned from a local jail. Even to me, who's run for judge and consistently rocked the system's boat, getting banned from a jail was pretty impressive.

Lou was a character. “My lawyer!” he'd call out in passing to any attorney he respected. He often biked to work. He wore a large ushanka hat in the winter. He posted social justice news clippings around the office elevator and the men's urinal for perusing. Besides his day work, Lou has been an advocate for local criminal defense groups, AIDS research and environmental issues, and he has consistently raised money to support animal welfare organizations. The Orioles even owe Lou a debt of gratitude. Every year, he organized a handful of fundraiser outings to ballgames to support his charities of choice. In fact, Lou once predicted that by 2020 the Orioles would win the series and marijuana would be legalized. Let's just say that he's not wrong yet.

Lou's compassion for his clients, who loved him, is what truly made him special. He described it best at his retirement party. His goal in representing someone was to make that case the client's last in the criminal justice system — to solve that matter, but also put them on a path to success. Lou noted that he's come to realize the near impossibility of that task due to systemic racism, an unequal justice system, and a lack of jobs and infrastructure in our clients' neighborhoods. The odds are stacked high. With each new client, though, comes a chance to try again. That's what kept him going. We all have to keep trying, just like Lou did throughout his career.

Todd Oppenheim is an attorney in the Baltimore City Public Defender's Office. Twitter: @Opp4Justice; email: toppenheim@opd.state.md.us.

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