Published in 2023 Mid-South Super Lawyers magazine
By Jerry Grillo on November 27, 2023
Richard Jaffe was working at his father’s auto-parts store in Birmingham, Alabama, on a Sunday morning in 1972 when he saw something that would help make him one of the best criminal defense lawyers in the country. It was the look on his father’s face as Herman Jaffe was hauled away by sheriff’s deputies.
Jaffe’s Auto Parts served a mostly African-American clientele in a neighborhood where the people often worked six days a week. Sundays were for church and honey-do lists, which often meant fixing the family car. So Herman, who treated his customers like family, kept his store open in defiance of the region’s blue laws, which banned most businesses from operating on Sundays. Application of these laws was usually left up to local police discretion, but apparently a Jewish family business with a mostly Black clientele was an easy target for such selective enforcement.
“They handcuffed him and took him to jail,” says Jaffe, founding partner of Jaffe, Hanle, Whisonant & Knight in Birmingham. At that point, the younger Jaffe had just graduated from the University of Alabama and was taking a year off before applying to law school.
“To see him treated this way by the police,” he says, “it only strengthened my resolve to someday defend people who are wrongfully accused of crimes.”
(Herman, who couldn’t afford a lawyer, defended himself with one of the oldest known legal maneuvers: common sense. It was such a ridiculous charge the judge laughed it out of court.)
Jaffe has since defended more than 60 people facing the death penalty; none has been executed. He’s handled six federal death penalty cases—including the defense of Eric Rudolph, the 1996 Olympics and family planning clinic bomber. And in a state that leads the nation in death row inmates per capita, Jaffe’s work has led to the exoneration of six innocent men awaiting execution.
One of them was Randal Padgett. In the early 1990s, Padgett’s estranged wife was stabbed 46 times and there were signs of sexual assault. A jury found him guilty and recommended life in prison without the possibility of parole. The judge overrode the jury’s recommendation and sentenced Padgett to death.
“I used to think that, if you were innocent, you didn’t have anything to worry about. Then I discovered that just isn’t true,” says Padgett, exonerated in 1997 after Jaffe established his innocence in a retrial.
“Yeah, I would definitely say that Richard has played a very important role in my life.”
Jaffe grew up in segregated Birmingham, which had two segregated professional baseball teams: the Barons of the all-white minor league Southern Association; and the Black Barons, a Negro League team that gave Willie Mays his start in pro ball. When Jaffe was a kid, he sold programs, popcorn and drinks to the fans at ancient Rickwood Field—home of both ballclubs.
Being Jewish in the Deep South meant that Jaffe was part of a distinct minority. It wasn’t hard for the young man to grasp what it meant to be a target: Born in 1950, he had relatives who were murdered in Nazi gas chambers.
Nonetheless, he admits to being “a real screw-up when I started college.” He spent time at the pool hall betting on sports while embracing the more saturnalian aspects of late ’60s counterculture.
It wasn’t until sophomore year that he latched onto the notion of becoming a lawyer. It was fueled in part by popular culture—TV shows like Perry Mason as well as both book and movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird. (He has since been given the ultimate compliment of being introduced to law students as “Atticus Finch” by his friend Steven Bright, founder of the Southern Center for Human Rights.) Another factor in his turn toward the law was the example set by his college roommate and fraternity brother Mark Mandell, a politically and socially engaged student from Rhode Island who was on his way to becoming a leading national plaintiff’s lawyer.
“Mark influenced me more than anyone else, just a wonderful human being with a great moral compass—smart, empathetic, inspiring,” Jaffe says. “He got me into politics. I really wanted to be like him.”
The two got involved in student government and were at the center of a peaceful Vietnam War protest that turned violent, as cops beat and arrested students on the streets of Tuscaloosa. It was another incident that convinced Jaffe to pursue criminal defense.
So, of course, he began his career as a prosecutor.
“One night I was flipping through the three or four channels that existed at the time, and came across an interview with Bill Baxley, the new attorney general of Alabama,” Jaffe recalls. “He was progressive, he impressed me, I was mesmerized.”
Jaffe wrote Baxley a letter in 1973, beginning a correspondence that lasted through the end of law school; then he wrote another letter asking for a job. “It was so well-written and convincing, I told my assistant to call this guy in for an interview and hire him,” Baxley recalls.
The job lasted about a year. Jaffe wanted courtroom work and there were too many other young lawyers in the AG’s office ahead of him; so he took a job as a deputy DA back in Tuscaloosa, with the promise that he could work heavy felony cases. He jumped at the opportunity but was soon faced with a moral dilemma: Post Gary Gilmore and Gregg v. Georgia, the death penalty was being reinstated across the country.
“I was supposed to prosecute a death penalty case,” he says. “It was staring me square in the face. I just couldn’t do it.”
That’s when he quit the job and opened his practice in Birmingham. It was 1978, and ever since, says Baxley, “Richard has been a Superman of justice.”
Without cape or bulletproof skin, Jaffe stood his ground in front of flamboyant, fearsome Judge Jack Montgomery, who waved a pistol from his place on the bench in response to the lawyer’s demands that his client get a hearing. “He was having a sugar fix,” Jaffe says of that day in 1985. The judge also drank to excess, didn’t like Jaffe (or Jews in general), and was later indicted for extortion and racketeering after Jaffe and one of his clients, cooperating with the FBI, helped take Montgomery down in 1992.
Two years later, a bullet ended Montgomery’s life in a case that was never solved. Shortly afterwards, the bail bondsman who had been bribing the judge was also shot to death. Jaffe wound up successfully defending the bondsman’s live-in girlfriend, who was arrested for the murder. That case involved two trials, in which juries were split between a manslaughter conviction and a not-guilty verdict. With his client facing a third trial for capital murder, Jaffe’s team reached a deal with the prosecution: His client entered a plea for reckless manslaughter but did not admit guilt, serving 12 months of a 15-year sentence and the remainder on probation.
“He has the ability to turn night into day and day into night in the courtroom,” says Christopher Adams of Adams & Bischoff in Charleston, South Carolina, and former president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
As a young lawyer with the Southern Center for Human Rights, Adams worked with Jaffe and other attorneys in the retrial of death row inmate Gary Drinkard, resulting in his exoneration. “What Richard accomplished was remarkable,” Adams says. “He can calmly assess big-picture stuff while also mixing it up. He can be very fiery and passionate as an advocate in the courtroom when the lights are on. But, in his office, or in the library, when you’re spreading out documents and trying to make sense of it, he’s able to take a global point of view and assimilate everything. He could take pages and pages of material and squeeze that for an effective 15-minute cross-examination.
Adams adds: “I think he is both a philosopher and a warrior.”
Adams and Jaffe bonded over storytelling. In court, Jaffe spun tales and saved lives, crafting narratives that emphasized powerful themes. Inspired, Adams earned a master’s in oral storytelling.
“I was taking some continuing education storytelling classes, and Richard had a number of books on storytelling and writing screenplays,” says Adams. “When I would spend the night in Richard’s guest room during trial prep, we’d stay up late into the night talking about these things and how to use them in the courtroom.”
Of the more than 60 death penalty cases Jaffe has handled, 22 landed in front of a jury, and many of those resulted in acquittals or lesser offenses. In his book Quest for Justice: Defending the Damned, published in 2012, Jaffe emphasizes the idea that capital punishment is a barbaric, arbitrary system that favors the rich over the poor while discriminating on the basis of race. Now in its second edition, the book is a collection of stories from Jaffe’s life and nearly 50-year career, focusing on the cases he’s won and lost and the people he’s worked with or saved from execution—including Randal Padgett.
“My first lawyer, I don’t know if he ever believed I was innocent,” says Padgett, 73. “He acted like he wanted to be my buddy. I needed someone to help me out of my trouble, not a buddy.”
Padgett suggested his first lawyer investigate the woman with whom he’d been having an affair, and remembers the lawyer telling him, “‘You can’t point your finger at someone else in front of a jury in the courtroom, it’ll make you look bad.’ So I told him, ‘Well, it looks pretty bad right now because the finger is pointed at me,’” Padgett says. “After I was convicted, I hired Richard.”
Some of Padgett’s loved ones suggested he make a deal that would take him off death row, but he kept insisting on his innocence. He wanted nothing short of complete exoneration.
“Richard really listened to me, believed me, and that impressed me,” Padgett says. “He worked behind the scenes, had his investigator looking into the leads that me and some of my friends kept talking about.”
Ultimately, Jaffe proved that Padgett could not have committed the crime, demonstrating that his girlfriend had already threatened Cathy and had the bizarre habit of collecting her lovers’ semen after intercourse—which Jaffe believes could have led to Padgett being set up.
In Quest for Justice, Jaffe describes the scene after the not-guilty verdict: There was stunned silence followed by screams and gasps: “Randal, the rest of the defense team and I walked between the rows of spectators out into the waiting cameras. No one else in the courtroom, not even the judge, had moved. I felt as if I was striding down an aisle of bliss.”
The Hallmark of a Criminal Defense Lawyer
“Eric Rudolph embodies one of the reasons why I do what I do. Representing the most unpopular and despised of our society is, in my opinion, the hallmark of a true criminal defense lawyer. John Adams did this when he defended the British soldiers who shot their weapons openly into the crowd during the Boston Massacre. When advocating for someone this unpopular we are also representing our profession, which is committed to safeguarding the rights of the least among us and the constitutional protections that everyone has, no matter what he is charged with or what his beliefs are.” – Richard Jaffe, Quest for Justice: Defending the Damned, 2nd edition, pg. 258
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