The Lawyer Who Saw the Lightning

Stephen M. Glynn and nearly 40 years of moral fitness

Published in 2007 Wisconsin Super Lawyers — December 2007

In the spring of 1970, Steve Glynn was sitting in a jail cell in a Madison courthouse, bruised from head to toe. Two weeks away from graduating with honors from the UW–Madison Law School, and already a husband and father, he’d dared, that May night, to ask the badge numbers of sheriff’s officers he’d seen roughing up students who took to the streets to protest the invasion of Cambodia. Glynn, then an intern with the ACLU, was with two other law students to document possible police overreaction, and he didn’t have to go far to find it.

“I was patted down and the officer found what he called a ‘rock’ in my back pocket,” Glynn remembers. “It was really more like a pebble. Where did it come from? Probably my son. We would frequently drive my motorcycle over to the student union and skip stones on Lake Mendota. He was 4 at the time.”

Because of the pebble, Glynn was thrown against a wall with a gun cocked to his head, beaten with night sticks and tossed in jail.

“That was the worst night of my life,” Glynn says, then adds: “Although I was the least injured person in that cell. Others had broken bones, blood all over, broken noses.”

It wasn’t the first time Glynn had witnessed police brutality—two summers previous, he’d interned for the ACLU in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic Convention—but it was the first time he’d experienced it himself. His incarceration had unintended consequences. The lawyer who came to bail him out that night was of counsel to the Milwaukee criminal defense firm Shellow & Shellow. Following his release from jail (and a clerkship with federal judge James Doyle, father of Wisconsin’s current governor), Glynn would work there for almost 30 years.

Here’s the second unintended consequence: Glynn became the first student subjected to a “moral fitness” hearing, conducted by the deans of his law school, in order to be admitted to the Wisconsin bar. “It was a very polarized time,” Glynn says. “A number of northern bar associations had complained about my admission to the bar. The fact that an honors law grad was charged with a crime captured media attention.”

The hearing turned out to be a no-brainer. Glynn was represented by his boss-to-be, Gilda Shellow, and the chief police witness actually came back into the hearing room after his testimony to say, “I think this man will make a good lawyer.”

Doug Kammer, now of Kammer & Studinski Chartered in Portage, was one of the other law students at the protest that night, and he testified on Glynn’s behalf at the hearing. “Steve just couldn’t believe his government could act as it did against its own citizens,” Kammer says. “He’s an admirable guy because he sees what’s going on and is not afraid to do something about it.”

Anyone walking into Glynn’s Milwaukee office in the historic Beaux Arts Northern Trust bank building will see a haphazard pile of awards on the credenza behind his cluttered desk. They’ve been there since he moved into this top-floor suite of offices almost eight years ago. He is proudest of the fact that his peers, in Milwaukee magazine, named him the top defense attorney in Milwaukee five times since 1985. “He has a brain and a heart,” wrote one nominating attorney in 2003. “Compared to him, most lawyers just have a mouth.”

“I thought about starting a glory wall, but I’m ambivalent,” Glynn says, gesturing across his expansive columned office accented in burnished woods, modernist wrought-iron furnishings and a fireplace to take the edge off cold Wisconsin days. It’s a space as open and welcoming as Glynn himself.

Glynn, 63, the father of two and grandfather of four, has been in these offices since 2000 when he struck out on his own with two Shellow partners and another attorney to form Glynn, Fitzgerald & Albee. The firm now handles mostly corporate criminal defense work in federal court, as well as high-profile clients such as former Packers star James Lofton.

His first corporate case, in the early ’90s, involved defending a prominent Racine firm against federal charges for doing business with Libya. Glynn got the case because an in-house attorney remembered a talk Glynn gave on corporate criminal responsibility. Glynn was on the treadmill at his gym when he got the call that federal customs agents were “swarming” all over the prospective client’s business. After six years of negotiations conducted by Glynn, a subsidiary was found liable for the Libyan connection, and the company was allowed to continue receiving government contracts. Glynn was hooked.

“One of the problems with [criminal defense] is that it’s your fault [when the client goes to jail],” he says. “I don’t want a defense attorney who doesn’t feel that way, but it’s very hard sometimes to continue to take cases.” Still, he does. After years of pretrial litigation, he is about to begin defending another client accused of murder.

Glynn grew up in Stevens Point, schooled in the virtues of working hard, reading everything and caring for others. In high school he was influenced by the 1960 Spencer Tracy movie Inherit the Wind, which was based on the 1925 Scopes trial. “[Clarence] Darrow was a hero,” Glynn says, “because of his willingness to take on unpopular causes, a lawyer who didn’t care too much about money.”

After a 12-year Catholic education, his parents—an insurance office manager and an executive secretary—assumed he would go to a Catholic college, but he lasted just 29 days as a Christian Brothers novitiate.

“I was rethinking my vocation when [my brother] Jim sent me a letter,” Glynn recalls, “telling me he had met a gorgeous woman who had an even prettier younger sister and how long was I going to keep up this craziness anyway?” Jim Glynn had been in the army, and had even monitored the flight of Francis Gary Powers over the Soviet Union in 1960, but an auto accident left him a paraplegic. In the letter, Jim mentioned he could also use help picking up girls in his new, handicap-equipped convertible. Two days later, Steve left the novitiate and enrolled in UW–Milwaukee.

During his college years, Glynn lived with his parents in Wauwatosa. For several months in 1967, activists passionately and regularly marched on his quiet street in protest of a judge who lived there, and who ruled on open-housing issues while a member of the Eagles’ Aerie, an all-white social club. The protest helped kick-start integration in Milwaukee and made Glynn realize that you could “embrace the Constitution and make it work. I thought, as an undergrad, ‘That would be a good thing to be doing.’” A decade later, the Shellow firm, with Glynn leading the charge, brought—and won—a lawsuit against the club, challenging its tax-exempt status.

For years, Glynn’s highest priority was defending those he believed falsely accused of crimes, including while he was president of the Legal Aid Society in Milwaukee. Two of these clients are still in prison—even though Glynn helped exonerate them. The first is Leonard Peltier.

The Native-American activist, a veteran of the 72-day occupation at Wounded Knee, S.D., in 1973, and convicted of a double homicide in a 1975 shootout with federal agents at the Pine Ridge Reservation, also tangled with Wisconsin law enforcement. In 1972, he was accused of the attempted murder of a pair of plainclothes Milwaukee cops. Peltier, and his spiritual adviser, Leonard Crow Dog, assured Glynn he was innocent, and Peltier was allowed to post bond. Wounded Knee happened while he was out on bail.

The Wisconsin case began in January 1978—local prosecutors brought Peltier out of federal prison to stand trial—and the state’s case began to fall apart shortly afterwards. Glynn remembers: “I was examining one of the officers [Peltier was accused of attempting to murder] when he gave me a Perry Mason moment. He told me he had found Jesus and couldn’t lie anymore.” Other witnesses, including the other police officer, stuck to their stories. After the jury retired to deliberate, the judge said he would entertain a motion for a mistrial. “I asked Leonard and he said he’d follow the advice of Crow Dog. Crow Dog told me that after three electrical storms, Peltier would be set free.

“I told Peltier that was crazy, but he stuck it out through three further offers, the last of which included a promise by the prosecutor not to retry the case.” That night, Glynn was having drinks with his co-counsels in his condo overlooking Lake Michigan when it started to rain. “They asked, ribbing me, ‘Are you starting to believe?’ I said, ‘Don’t give me that shit.’” Then the sky lit up with what Glynn calls a magic show. “Lightning was going up and down, sideways, fingers of light were going everywhere. I’m standing there on the balcony with the hairs standing up on my arms, bawling. It was the most incredible thing that had ever happened to me.” The next morning, the jury returned with a not-guilty verdict.

Looking back, Glynn says he is still under the influence of that case. “I am much more open to what clients and friends say to me. I don’t pretend to know all the answers.”

As for the other defendant who’s still in prison even though Glynn helped exonerate him? “That is the case that has affected me most, emotionally and morally,” Glynn says.

Steven Avery was convicted of rape in 1986. Ten years later, Glynn’s firm, Shellow, Shellow & Glynn, pursued the idea of Avery’s “actual innocence” and conducted a hearing to dispute his conviction. “We simply decided to look into whether there were any factual issues [in his original conviction] to raise. DNA wasn’t as advanced at the time, but it was getting there. I was convinced that a DNA test was necessary in Avery’s rape case because he had been convicted on eyewitness testimony.”

The hearing was unsuccessful, so Glynn’s team appealed up to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. No luck. A few years later, the Innocence Project picked up Avery’s case and conducted a second hearing, during which the court agreed to test a single hair found at the scene using new DNA technology. It set Avery free in 2004, after 18 years in prison.

Two years later, Glynn was representing Avery in a $36 million civil lawsuit against the former prosecutor and sheriff in the rape case, and was in court on another matter, when he heard that Avery had been in contact with a young female photographer, missing for weeks, whose story was all over the news. The same DNA techniques that freed Avery would eventually prove he had murdered her, dismembered her body and burned it in his back yard.

Avery’s civil case would eventually settle for $400,000, with the lawsuit dismissed “without admission to fault or liability” by Manitowoc county government, but Glynn never got over the feeling of guilt he felt the day Avery was arrested for the photographer’s murder.

“I wanted to pull the covers over my head,” Glynn says. “The impact emotionally was almost palpable. He was a guy I thought I knew. I was glad my wife was with me [that day] because I could not have driven back from court after everything began pointing to Steven.”

More unsettling for Glynn is the thought that this case might give the people of Wisconsin or its legislators a reason to turn against criminal justice reforms. In 2005, the Wisconsin Legislature passed reforms that required videotaped confessions in all juvenile and adult felony cases. It strengthened procedures for retention and testing of biological material, created new rules for eyewitness identification and limited the admissibility of unrecorded statements. These reforms, originally known as “The Avery Law,” are now simply known as Sections 938.195 (2)(a) and 968.073(2) of the Wisconsin Statutes.

“Steve worked to exonerate Mr. Avery,” says Claude Covelli, a partner with Boardman, Suhr, Curry & Field in Madison, who represented some of the defendants in the Avery civil case. “I think that’s not only the right thing, but the only thing he could have done for Mr. Avery, who was innocent of that crime. It was Steve’s duty to get a civil judgment for his client if he could, and he did. He’s a strong advocate but he’s a pleasure to work with. That’s not as common as one would hope.”

“If I was in trouble, I’d go to Steve,” says Assistant U.S. Attorney Dan Graber, who serves the Western District of Wisconsin in Madison. “Criminal defense attorneys have a special role. You have clients who don’t trust you and a public perception that you’re trying to get bad guys off. He’s actually hard to counter from the government side because he’s so believable. He’s thought about everything.”

We’ve talked war stories for hours, barely noticing the passage of time, and Glynn’s office has closed for the day. When the phone rings, he is the only one left in the office to answer it. A case is about to settle, or not, and a minor round of to-and-fro ensues. He is determined to get the best deal for his client, but if not today, then another day. “Peace,” he says, and hangs up the phone.

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