From prosecution to defense and back again, Tom Bath is at home on either side of the courtroom
Published in 2008 Missouri & Kansas Super Lawyers magazine
on October 21, 2008
Updated on June 11, 2009
Tom Bath was 12 years old when he got his first taste of the law. He and his classmates were assigned to interview a professional in their town. Bath interviewed a lawyer and immediately saw his future … with a few tweaks.
He didn’t want a career in corporate law like his interview subject. Perhaps something a little more exciting … like trial law? And it’s so hard for a kid to choose between locking up criminals and defending the unjustly accused. Why couldn’t you do both?
To listen to Bath tell it, he’s just so happy being in the courtroom, it almost doesn’t matter which table he’s standing behind. “I enjoy being in front of a jury, presenting evidence, building or deconstructing a case,” Bath says.
Bath, of Bath and Edmonds, an Overland Park criminal defense firm, graduated from law school in 1986 and went to bat for the prosecution. He joined the Johnson County district attorney’s office as an assistant district attorney. In 1992, he was named Kansas Prosecutor of the Year, a testament to his hard work and victories on cases like State v. Faye Howell.
Faye Howell, along with her boyfriend Lajuan Clemons, were accused of shooting and killing Howell’s estranged husband, Charles, outside his home on the very day of her divorce hearing. Bath tried both cases separately and won first-degree murder convictions for Clemons and Howell.
After leaving the district attorney’s office in 1992, Bath switched teams for the defense, working as an associate and then a partner at Bryan Cave. In 1997, he spent some time as a solo practitioner before starting a criminal defense firm with Robb Edmonds.
“Tom is an excellent example of a lawyer who has the ability to instantly see the big picture, while at the same time is able to focus on the important details that make up the big picture,” says Edmonds. “I’ve never met anyone who works harder than Tom.”
Because of his reputation for hard work and success from either side of the courtroom, Bath has had the opportunity to assist the state as a private prosecutor through a provision of Kansas law that allows victims of crimes or families of victims to hire outside counsel to work with the prosecution.
In 2004, the family of 40-year-old former Manhattan city prosecutor, lawyer and mediator Carmin Ross hired Bath as a private prosecutor after Ross was beaten and fatally stabbed in her home northwest of Lawrence on Nov. 13, 2003. Earlier that year, Ross divorced her husband of 18 years, Thomas Murray, a Kansas State University English professor, and was reportedly just weeks away from moving with their young daughter to California and marrying her new fiancé.
“The district attorney’s office welcomed me into the case, allowed me full access to the documents. We worked as a team and it worked out really well,” Bath says. “I told the family that if I got involved in the case and I didn’t think the guy did it, I wasn’t going to stay in the case. But once I got into the case, I stayed in it because I believe he did it.”
While the defense portrayed Murray as a peaceful “thinking man,” Bath told the jury about online searches made on Murray’s K-State office computer, where he looked for information on how to kill someone “quietly,” how to make a bomb or poison, and which countries lacked extradition pacts with the United States. Bath and the other prosecutors contended that Murray planned to murder Ross because he was worried about losing custody of his daughter.
After a four-week trial, the jury came back with a guilty verdict on March 17, 2005, and on May 6, Murray was sentenced to life in prison with eligibility for parole after 25 years. “Initially it was a great relief, satisfaction that justice was done,” Bath says.
But Bath doesn’t necessarily need a high-profile, headline-grabbing murder case to get that satisfied feeling. One of his other recent cases involved a mere bar fight. His client was accused of punching and breaking the orbital bone of another man, which left him charged with a felony. Before Bath was brought in, the client had another attorney who pushed a plea bargin. The client wanted none of that. “After I reviewed the case, I said to him, ‘No way are we taking a plea,'” Bath says.
They refused the deal and the jury rewarded them with a not-guilty verdict.
“This was a case of a young man with a family who was in an unfortunate situation. I’m sure he wished he hadn’t struck the guy,” Bath says. “Sometimes they are guilty of some crime, just not the crime they were charged with. This is why I keep going.”
Over his decades of work for both prosecution and defense, Bath has made some fans in the legal community. U.S. Rep. Dennis Moore, who hired Bath in 1986 when he was the Johnson County district attorney, calls Bath an “excellent lawyer” and Topeka-based criminal defense attorney Pedro Irigonegaray agrees.
Irigonegaray has served as opposing counsel on a variety of cases against Bath, including the Murray case. Irigonegaray says that while they might serve as adversaries in the courtroom at times, they leave as friends. He has a great amount of respect for Bath, as a lawyer and as a person.
“The difference between other lawyers and lawyers like Tom is a dedication to the profession,” Irigonegaray says. “One can be extremely smart, but if one is not dedicated to the profession, smarts can only take you part of the way. When you get that combination of intellect, dedication and good character, you end up with the Tom Baths of the world.”