The Master Storyteller
‘Talk to no one except Edward T.M. Garland!’
Published in 2012 Georgia Super Lawyers magazine on February 17, 2012
Edward T.M. Garland, a sixth-generation lawyer, and the son of attorney Reuben A. Garland—famous for his flamboyant style and willingness to take on controversial cases—has many stories to tell. Here’s one of them.
“I tried a robbery case once in DeKalb Superior Court,” Garland recalls. “A man who was accused of robbing the Piggly Wiggly. It was a big case for me—I had been practicing law for about eight months. Right in the middle of the key examination of the most important witnesses, right when I was cross-examining, the courtroom doors blew open. Here came my dad in his black Homburg hat, a Chesterfield English overcoat on, a gray double-breasted English vest, and a gold-headed walking stick. He sat down beside me. I proceeded to ask [the witness] questions. He started saying, ‘Edward, ask him this. Edward, ask him that.’ He started pulling on my coat. I was standing right beside the jury rail—it was a small courtroom. Finally a juror said, ‘Aw, leave him alone. He’s doing OK!’”
Garland’s father was an outsized presence in his life. On Saturdays in his youth, cars would line up in front of the house, with people calling on behalf of a family member who’d been arrested the night before. He remembers going with his mother to take food to the jail, where his father would be serving time for contempt of court. “He’d gotten someone acquitted but had run afoul of the judge and they’d locked him up,” Garland says. “He’d say, ‘Well, I’ve never been to jail when my client wasn’t acquitted.’
“The world revolved around my father and his trials and clients,” Garland adds. “He tried close to 500 murder cases with hundreds of acquittals, and never had but one man die. Among my earliest memories, my dad would answer the phone and the conversation would go, ‘Hello? Yes, this is Reuben A. Garland. You’re in jail for what? Now lemme tell you something—don’t you talk to anybody! A fish wouldn’t get caught if it kept its mouth shut. Talk to no one except Reuben A. Garland!’”
In many ways Garland, of Garland, Samuel & Loeb, is more low-key and measured than his father, but he takes after him in this way: He’s the lawyer you go to if you’re in serious trouble in the South. Just ask Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, former Atlanta Thrashers hockey player Dany Heatley or rapper T.I.—a few of Garland’s more famous clients.
Garland wasn’t pushed to go into the family business; he just never thought about anything else. “That was the world that surrounded me,” he says. “I grew up idolizing my father, and did throughout his career.”
Garland is also a master storyteller. When it matters—when someone’s life is at stake—he turns up the drama. You feel yourself leaning forward to hear what he has to say.
Consider his press conference in the Ray Lewis case. In 2000, Lewis, in Atlanta attending a Super Bowl party, was on the scene when two men were stabbed to death in a fight. The case drew enormous media attention, and Garland immediately seized the opportunity. He started the press conference sounding like an old-time Southern preacher, referencing the man wrongly accused in the 1996 Olympic Park bombing. “I can hear the whistle blowing on the prosecution train,” he said. “And the first person on it is Richard Jewell. And the second seat they are reserving for Ray Lewis.”
“That was a lot of fun,” says Garland, chuckling. “We kept up a relentless counterattack. We were on the edge of what is proper. But sometimes a lawyer has to be willing to walk up to the edge to fight for his client.” The prosecution ultimately dismissed murder charges during the trial, and Lewis pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice.
Like his father, Garland is a fierce advocate for his clients, whatever the accusation. “My attitude is, we don’t pick cases,” he says. “People come in here like they come to a doctor. They come, they have a problem, we try to help them. Just like a doctor wouldn’t say, ‘I don’t want to treat this patient because their disease is bad’ … my job is to make [the prosecution] prove the case.
“I am not the judge. That’s not my role. The minute a lawyer drifts over and starts judging the client, the client loses the advocate.”
Garland believes being an advocate goes to the heart of what our country is about. “You may help a client most by telling him he needs to plead guilty and get the best resolution he can,” Garland says. “It’s so important that the law be applied to protect and benefit the citizen. It doesn’t make a difference whether the rule is applied to the truly innocent or the completely guilty… that’s the way we make our system work. Protect the rights of the most condemned. If you do that, you will protect the rights of the innocent.”
Garland’s son, John, who is also a member of the firm, appreciates his father’s ingenuity in the courtroom. “It’s not just about crunching numbers or knowing all the facts. To have a logical analysis of every case is important. But to truly be an advocate, you have to be creative,” John says. “You see it in the courtroom, because he thinks about things you wouldn’t necessarily have thought of at first. To make a factual situation real—to make it live, to make it breathe, to make it talk—he’s a master at that.”
Garland says he learned that lesson during his first trial in Fulton County—a murder case in which Liza Stripling was accused of killing her husband. “I remember my dad called me the morning I was to try the case and said, ‘Are you ready?’ I said, ‘Yes, I have witnesses.’ He said, ‘You’ve been to the scene?’ I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘I’ll be over in a few minutes.’ We went to the backyard where the stabbing had taken place and he said, ‘What is your defense?’ I said, ‘My defense is that [her husband] was reaching for a rock. He had brutalized her in the past, and she stabbed him because she knew he was going to bust her brains out.’ He said, ‘Do you have the rock?’ I picked up a rock and took it to court. When my client testified, she said, ‘I can’t say that’s the rock but it sure looks like it.’ The judge put it into evidence and I went over and put it on the jury rail. Lo and behold, it fell off and hit the floor with a thunderous sound. And I think it played a significant role in bringing about the acquittal.”
Many murder trials later, Garland says he still feels equal parts exhilaration and terror when the jury comes in. “When you have a jury say, ‘We the jury find the defendant not guilty, not guilty, not guilty,’ it is absolutely thrilling,” he says. “And it’s equally horrifying when they say ‘guilty.’ You are so locked up in your effort. Your efforts are being judged along with your client’s, right then and there. It’s like the Colosseum: it’s thumbs up or thumbs down. When you lose, you feel somewhat condemned yourself.”
This feeling is multiplied in a death penalty case. “When you stand there at the jury rail and know that your very words may be the difference between life and death, it is terrifying,” Garland says. “And you know that if you don’t give your whole heart and soul, someone may die.”
Forty years ago, a client had been found guilty and Garland had a two-hour break before the penalty phase began. “I sat in that courtroom with an unrelenting sweat running down my chest,” he says. “Trying to think, ‘What are the words, what are the actions I can take?’” As he recalls how he pleaded for his client’s life, his voice slows, becomes more deliberate, and he again sounds like a preacher: “I got the client up from his chair, walked him over to the jury rail, put his hands on the rail, and told the jury: ‘In those hands flow that same blood that flows in his mother, who came here to testify for him. And you would have to take that blood—but you don’t have to do that.’”
Garland calls trial a kind of war: “a contest of knowledge, skill, psychology and stamina,” he says. And in a criminal trial, because of limited disclosure, the defense doesn’t always know what a witness will say. As creative as Garland is in the courtroom, he is equally relentless. “Go to the scene, interview the witnesses, know more about the law than anybody else,” he says. “When people in the courtroom realize that, they’ll respect you.”
His courtroom demeanor can change in a flash, depending on how he reads the jury. “You may be strong and tough, or soft and kind. Sometimes a jury wants you to be tough on a witness that does deserve to be treated in a harsh manner. But you better not beat up on a witness that doesn’t deserve it, or one the jury doesn’t want you to,” Garland says.
Although he’s used “fancy jury experts,” Garland says the verdict still comes down to a guessing game. “You have to trust your well-informed, instinctual feelings,” he says. “And even then you have terror and uncertainty when you strike or decide to select them.” In a recent case, the judge wouldn’t allow the lawyers to ask any questions of potential jurors. “So you sit and hope, with what little information you have,” Garland says. “And then it’s, ‘Jury’s in the box. It’s time to go.’”
He takes the same conditional approach with the media. Sometimes he just repeats his father’s advice to a client: Keep your mouth shut. At the same time, Garland never met a camera he didn’t think about using to his client’s advantage. He tends to aim, he says, for a statement that “covers everything, touches nothing.”
But in some cases, he fully engages with the media. That happened in the Ray Lewis case, where Garland says the investigative media actually helped find witnesses.
In another case, when Garland defended local sportscaster Harmon Wages on drug charges in federal court, he put Wages himself in front of the camera—a rarity that panned out. “He looked at the camera and said, ‘On my father’s grave and my mother’s honor, I am not guilty,’” Garland remembers. Wages was convicted only on misdemeanor charges. Garland recalls one of the jurors saying, “You know, I remember him looking at the camera …”
Garland says he still feels the same combination of excitement, challenge, and a bit of terror that he did when he began practicing. He adds that working with his law partner, Don Samuel, has been one of the great blessings of his practice. (And the feeling is mutual: see sidebar on page 18.)
“Don is a man whose heart is bigger than the courtroom, and who’s recognized as a master of criminal law and a person of great humor, persuasion and loyalty, and for that I feel infinitely blessed,” Garland says.
He’s also thrilled that a seventh-generation Garland has joined the office. “Every day that my dad and I practiced law, we hugged and embraced. And every day I practice law with my son, we hug and embrace,” Garland says.
Someday there may be an eighth-generation lawyer in the Garland family. “I’ve had a happy life,” Garland says. “The cases have been hard, but life has not.”
A Story about the Storyteller
When Edward Garland was defending football-player-turned-sportscaster Harmon Wages on drug charges in the 1980s, he knew he would face a tough task cross-examining Wages’ girlfriend, Deborah Norville, then a local TV reporter in Atlanta. “She testified against Harmon—not terrible, but, ‘Yes, he used drugs,’ stuff like that,” says Garland’s law partner Don Samuel, who estimates the two men have tried close to 100 cases together.
During a long weekend spent preparing for cross-examination, the legal team and Wages agreed there was little to use to impeach Norville’s testimony. That just encouraged Garland’s creative thinking.
When it came time for cross-examination, Garland approached the podium with a thick three-ring notebook, “sending the message, this cross-examination is going to go on for days,” says Samuel. “Lots of fanfare, lots of preparation, wiping your brow, getting ready. Suddenly Harmon walks up to him and whispers something to him. Ed looks over at him like, ‘What?!’ Then Harmon makes a ‘stop’ gesture. This is all in front of the jury.” Wages and Garland repeat the act again. Finally Garland closes the notebook, walks back to counsel’s table, and says, “We have no questions.”
Samuel still laughs when he thinks about it. “The entire thing was worked out in advance—the notebook was empty, there was nothing in there. It was all to create the image of Harmon Wages, this chivalrous guy [who wouldn’t let her be cross-examined]. It’s probably my favorite cross-examination of all time.”