secret_history (2006-18)

Bob Ritchie, 1938-2006

Some memories of an influential friend

by Jack Neely

My friend Bob Ritchie died last Friday, of cancer. For the last 30 years or so, he was maybe the best-known criminal-defense attorney in Knoxville, and had some wider renown; he was former president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

I knew him first, and mostly, as boss. For two years I was, officially, his “investigator.” It wasn’t anything I expected to happen.

I was in a post-collegiate detente of short-term jobs and spells of comfortable unemployment. If anyone asked, I was planning to go to law school someday. Meanwhile, I was living like an apathetic student, sleeping in a cheap apartment on Laurel Avenue, eating in the UT cafeteria, reading the papers at the Hoskins Library. I didn’t own a car, nor care to. I worked at the World’s Fair, almost six months, and when it was over I figured I’d worked plenty for a while and was due a good long rest.

On the very last day of the fair, I happened to run into my old UT advisor, who told me about a new opening at what was then known as Ritchie, Chadwell, and Eldridge, attorneys.

With nothing to lose, I appeared at their office on the 11th floor of what was then the Park Bank Building and submitted to an interview. He was a disarming guy with pale skin, large glasses and a beatific smile that looked like it belonged to a saint in a Dutch Renaissance painting. He didn’t look as crafty or as tough as I’d heard he was.

Ritchie told me that though he was looking for somebody like me, some of his partners didn’t want to hire a kid, and preferred a tough guy, a former Marine, maybe, or an ex-cop. I found reason to relax, and resumed my early retirement. I hung out late that night down on the Strip, ran into friends, tripping home about 4 a.m., and made me some breakfast of pasta and eggs with hot sauce, a cherished routine. I went to bed and had just dozed off when the phone rang.

“Jack, Bob Ritchie!” rang the voice, alarming in its cheerfulness. “We’ve talked it over, and decided to give you the job! Come on up and let’s get started!”

“Um,” I averred.

“We’ll give you time to put on your best bib and tuck. Say, 30 minutes.”

Like that, I had my first couple of lessons about Bob Ritchie. One, he liked to tend to things expeditiously. Two, people don’t say no to Bob Ritchie. I was there, but about 15 minutes late, a matter that didn’t escape remark. But he allowed my unreadiness was maybe forgivable in light of the fact that I had awoken that morning in the false confidence that I was unemployed.

He told me I’d need a car, by the next day if not sooner. I went out that night and bought a ’72 Beetle. Like that I wrenched my whole pseudobohemian worldview around to suit Bob Ritchie. He had that effect on folks.

For the next two years, I thought of myself as Bob Ritchie’s legs, Archie Goodwin to his Nero Wolfe. Ritchie’s reputation was regional, and the Beetle and I raised dust on dirt roads from Johnson City to Crossville. I interviewed witnesses and alleged perpetrators, took photographs, made recordings, drew diagrams, once of a cellblock in Brushy Mountain where several members of a gang had been shot. Once my job was to find the pieces of a chopped-up truck used in a murder in Greene County. I found a few of them, including a bloodstained seat a junk man was using as a sofa.

It was fascinating work, I had to admit. During the two years I was there we worked on the Butcher banking scandal, the trial of the lawyer who ran off with her death-row convict client, a local judge who shot up a liquor store, a coal-tipple scandal in Campbell County, several particularly bizarre crimes of passion, even a mob-killing case in St. Louis (I didn’t complain when Bob limited me to clerical work on that one). 

The other lawyers called me “the Kid,” but it wasn’t with a flair, like “Billy the Kid,” or “Kid Curry.” It was more like, “what’s the Kid doing in here with us lawyers?” But Ritchie offered a kind of ennobling respect, soliciting my advice even on life-and-death matters. But it was in the process that I decided not to try again to get into law school. I realized I was already doing the fun part of the job; Bob was doing the heavy lifting. He worked late nights, Saturdays, sometimes Sundays, poring over documents and law books, always cheerfully; I never saw him fatigue. He was always thinking, checking details, calling me on the phone about something. I always wondered if the D.A. was working half as hard as we were.

I never knew what he was up to until the actual court date. On the way, he and his briefcase were always moving ahead as if there was no way he was going to slow down, but invariably friendly to everybody on the sidewalk; he had perfected the technique of swiveling his head full  around to smile and talk to passersby as his legs pumped him unstoppably forward.

I gathered puzzle pieces, usually skeptical about whether they would fit. Ritchie put it all together, sometimes at the last minute. Sometimes, seemingly, afoot in court. He befriended every jury and judge; he seemed even to befriend the opposing counsel, let the jury know he thought the prosecutor was just a good, well-meaning fellow trying to do his job even though he was wrong.

In private, many lawyers are known to wax cynical about one client or another, or the criminal-defense line of work in general. I was kind of a wise guy myself, and tried, but could never work any cynicism out of Bob Ritchie. He believed in the criminal-justice system and in the daily importance of his part in it. Sometimes I even suspected that Bob Ritchie really believed his clients were innocent. It may take that willful belief, no matter how much energy it requires, to do that job as well as he did.