Tuesday, February 15, 2000

The indelible legacy of a judicious life

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Gilbert Bettman
        I am trying to think about William Gallagher, a young defense lawyer. Handsome, with aggressive black eyebrows over blue-green eyes. But the smooth, patrician face of Gilbert Bettman intrudes.

        Judge Bettman died Saturday at age 82. Bill Gallagher, 37, is getting ready for a murder trial.

        The elder lawyer was Harvard Law and Jewish. He grew up on Elmhurst Place with a very nice view of the river. Bill grew up on Chicago's south side in an Irish Catholic neighborhood. Chicago-Kent College of Law, then the public defender's office before coming here five years ago.

        Bill lost 15 pounds and a lot of sleep the last time he had a murder case. He started smoking. Life or death will do that to a person. During his last job, he “sat next to a guy who spent nine years on death row for a crime he didn't commit.”

        The “guy” was Darby Tillis, who was freed by a Cook County, Ill., judge and now is a preacher and father of two. Bill worked on the fourth and fifth trials of Mr. Tillis.

        Fourth? Fifth?

        “We spend an incredible amount of money and energy trying to extinguish someone's life,” he says.

        And, again, I am seeing Judge Gilbert Bettman's face. And hearing his voice.

        “People think I'm perhaps naive in my sentencing,” the judge told a reporter in 1987, “but I think the alternative — putting them in jail — is, in some cases, a rather dim-witted way of spending $25,000. If they'd come out reformed, I'd say fine, it's worth it. Of course, they don't. In most cases, you can count on them coming out much worse.”

        Bill Gallagher lifts himself out of his swivel chair, when he talks about this. “Most of the criminals who mess up our lives are on drugs or alcohol. It sure would be cheaper to treat them than to keep putting them in jail and letting them out and putting them back again.”

        And then, of course, there is the question of innocence. According to the Innocence Project, based in New York, DNA evidence has led to 69 exonerations since 1992. “DNA has given us credibility,” Bill says.

        But DNA won't get all innocent people off the hook. There's no DNA proof in a burglary or most murders. Just a lot of hard work. And, excuse the expression, faith.

        “I pray,” Bill says. “And I don't believe in capital punishment. I just don't think anybody has the right to say Denise is done being useful on this Earth,” he says, referring to a trial scheduled to begin in a matter of weeks.

        Denise Lipscomb will stand trial in the 1999 killing of Silverton cab driver John Arcady. If convicted, she will become the only woman on Ohio's death row. Depending on the jury. Depending on the lawyers. Depending on the judge.

        “Every so often,” Judge Bettman said in a Cincinnati Magazine interview, “someone will stop me on the street and say, "Judge, I know you don't remember me, but you gave me a chance and I made it.' That's worth fighting for.”

        Judge Gilbert Bettman managed to find a lot of things worth fighting for during his 82 years. “Gentlemen,” he told the Ohio legislature when they passed a law requiring school teachers to sign an anti-Communist form, “you know this is wrong and profoundly un-American.”

        He was the only Hamilton County official on the steps of the courthouse when a proclamation was read against the continuation of the Vietnam war.

        A man of principle. A fighter.

        Bill Gallagher is hunkering down now, working late, getting ready for real life. And death. He hasn't started smoking yet. Not yet. If he begins to get discouraged, if his energy flags a little, my advice would be to simply let Gilbert Bettman intrude upon his thoughts.

        E-mail Laura Pulfer at lpulfer@enquirer.com or call 768-8393.


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