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The Defense Never Rests

It’s rarely tea time for the hard-charging Earl Gray

Published in 2008 Minnesota Super Lawyers magazine

One morning late last spring, Earl Gray stood in the courtroom next to Michael Kozlowski, the truck driver accused of causing an accident that killed five people aboard a Chippewa Falls High School bus. Gray was about to lay out the defense he would maintain throughout the case: that the 78-year-old bus driver, who died in the crash and whose widow was in the courtroom, was the one at fault.

A fainter heart would have obsessed over the widow’s reaction. Not Gray. He was thinking about only two things.

One: “If you start worrying about hurting people’s feelings when you’re trying criminal cases, you probably should go into drafting wills. I take this very seriously; sometimes it overwhelms you, but you’re the only one in the courtroom on the side of the defendant.”

Two: Winning.

Gray, now in his 60s, with a shock of white hair and a crushing handshake, is one of the best-known defense attorneys in the state. He’s a larger-than-life personality who practically shouts out closing arguments and slams his fist down on courtroom tables. During his storied career, he has defended city council members, judges, athletes, police officers—you name it. Nothing seems to faze him.

He started out in the 1970s as a young public defender, when he and two other guys handled every misdemeanor case in Hennepin County. “A lot of times, you did things by the seat of your pants,” he says. He next spent time as a federal prosecutor — “a good job, because you learn how the other guy thinks,” he says — before returning to defense.

He believes in luck, good and bad, and hedges against the bad with obsessive work habits. When he started out, he worried about performance. Today, it’s preparation.

“When you’re young, you get real nervous in court and it goes away, it does, but what happens, what overwhelms you, is the idea of losing and not doing a good job,” he says. “That takes over. You put tons of hours in, you’re up half the night, and sometimes you’re worn down and get sick.”

During the Kozlowski case, he suddenly lost his voice. He managed to land a daylong recess then returned the following morning and hammered home his defense. He may have lost his voice, but never his confidence.

“You’ve got to tell the jury what you believe the case will show, and you’ve got to demonstrate to the jury that you believe it,” he says. “Or you wouldn’t be there.”

The jury deliberated just four hours. Kozlowski was acquitted of all charges. 

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