Ready to Wrangle
Cheryl A. Pilate and Melanie S. Morgan wage all-out war for their clients
Published in 2013 Missouri & Kansas Super Lawyers magazine
on October 14, 2013
Updated on October 16, 2013
For months in 2007, Kansas City, Mo., attorney Cheryl A. Pilate had been trying to hire a trusted investigator who kept turning her down because he was too busy handling cases for an Olathe, Kan., lawyer named Melanie S. Morgan. Pilate was annoyed. Who was this Morgan woman, and why was she hogging all of the researcher’s time?
One day Pilate arrived at a luncheon for attorneys assigned to indigent cases and sat down across from a petite, friendly looking lawyer who shook her hand and smiled. “Hi, I’m Melanie Morgan.”
“You’re Melanie Morgan?” Pilate asked. “The Melanie Morgan? You’re the other woman!”
Laughing, they struck up a conversation, which led to another, and they soon realized they shared the same goals and philosophies. That summer, they launched their new, all-female firm, Morgan Pilate, in Olathe. In late 2012, they invested $1 million in the renovation of a two-story, brick building near the federal courthouse in downtown Kansas City, Mo. “We love the fact that we’re all women. … We were looking for the gleam in the eyes that says, ‘Ready to wrangle, no matter what,’” Pilate says. “And everybody here has that.”
On the outside, the founding partners couldn’t be more different. Dark-haired and nearly six feet tall, the 59-year-old Pilate towers over her blond, 5-foot-4-inch partner. Morgan, 46, is diplomatic while Pilate tends to be more direct. Together, they make a ferocious team, claiming victory in cases other litigators might consider impossible.
The past few years have been particularly noteworthy. In 2010 Pilate won a federal trial verdict of more than $800,000 against the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration for the wrongful beating of a Kansas City, Kan., driver by a rogue agent. Last year, after triumphing over the U.S. government in the prosecution of an African man in a case linked to the 1994 Rwandan genocide, Morgan became the first woman to win the Kansas Bar Association’s Courageous Attorney Award.
“They’re a pit bull firm,” says Kurt P. Kerns, founding partner of Wichita’s Ariagno, Kerns, Mank & White, who has worked with both Pilate and Morgan. “They’re taking on the big boys and wiping the table with ‘em. This is a group of women that fight as one, that are relentless, and, working together, become this force that’s a terrible thing to reckon with if you’re on the other side.”
A thick-skinned kid from the Detroit area, Pilate initially worked as a newspaper reporter, then as a social worker, until one sleepless night while rocking her sick baby, she made a snap decision to become a lawyer. “I realized it was really a frustration for me not to be able to pick a side and espouse somebody’s cause,” she says. “I knew that I was a born advocate.”
After earning her J.D. from the University of Kansas in 1990, Pilate practiced criminal law at Wyrsch Hobbs & Mirakian, a firm known for the type of fierce advocacy she craved. Almost immediately, she litigated a reduced sentence in a complex white-collar case and was soon representing death penalty clients. In 1994, she shouldered her first innocence case on behalf of Ellen Reasonover, a St. Louis woman sentenced in 1983 to life in prison without possibility for parole for 50 years for the murder of a 19-year-old gas station attendant in Dellwood, Mo. It took Pilate five years to convince a judge to release Reasonover based on secretly recorded police tapes and memos proving the woman’s innocence, and another two-plus years to win a $7.5 million civil settlement from the city of Dellwood.
“Once the criminal justice system has its conviction, has its claws in somebody, peeling back those claws and unhooking them is about the hardest job there is,” Pilate says. “That conviction was an incredible miscarriage of justice because the evidence that exonerated Ellen Reasonover sat in a police file all those years while she sat in prison completely innocent. I learned a lot and I think I became savvier, tougher, more skeptical and more suspicious. I really believe very little that’s just handed to me. I’m always wanting to peel back the layer and see what’s underneath.”
Pilate was one of the first lawyers to get involved with the Midwest Innocence Project, which strives to exonerate wrongfully convicted inmates in a six-state region. “It never occurred to me after [the Reasonover] case to do anything less than to go forward and try and represent other people in the very same circumstance,” she says.
Her innocence clients have also included Darryl Burton, who spent 24 years in prison and was freed in 2008 after a lengthy court battle, and Eric Clemmons, a death row inmate who, thanks to Pilate, was acquitted in a retrial in 2000. She also successfully sued the state of Oklahoma and the city of Ada on behalf of Dennis Fritz and Ron Williamson. They each served 11 years—one of a life sentence and one on death row—for sexual assault and murder after being convicted largely on bogus scientific evidence and the testimony of an informant who later proved, through DNA testing, to be the real killer. The men were released in 1999. In 2006, they were featured in John Grisham’s first nonfiction book, The Innocent Man. So was Pilate.
She cringed when she read it. “I lived that case in every pore of my skin for two and a half years, and thinking about it was still a bit painful for me because I know there are people still in Oklahoma waiting for justice,” says Pilate. “Although there was a ‘happy ending’ in the sense that these two men were released, and there was a ‘happy ending’ in that a significant civil case was settled, those men were irreparably harmed and bruised by what happened to them.”
In some ways, Morgan’s early career mirrored Pilate’s. After majoring in communications at Kansas State University, the easygoing Framingham, Mass., native worked as a hospital public relations coordinator and was working toward her MBA. But she grew bored, and at the encouragement of two friends at University of Kansas School of Law, she sat in on a few classes. She was soon studying for the bar. Like Pilate, she participated in the Paul E. Wilson Project for Innocence and Post-Conviction Remedies, where she represented prisoners in appellate and post-conviction litigation in state and federal courts, and was disgusted by what she calls the “callous” attitude of attorneys who weren’t doing factual investigation that might help their innocent clients. After graduating in 1993, she joined the small Law Office of Joseph D. Johnson in Topeka, where she handled murder, rape and other “street crime” cases. She later went into private practice.
Early in her career, Morgan defended a client charged with committing two murders on a military base. After the hearing set to determine probable cause, the young prosecutor, who was not much older than Morgan, nonchalantly indicated that he’d been calling the matter a “death case.”
“I was appalled by that because the facts and circumstances suggested something much different than intentional murder,” Morgan recalls. “But I was also appalled by the fact that such a young person could be so cavalier about somebody else’s life. And on the drive back [to the office], I just cried. I remember Joe said to me, ‘It’s a tough business. Do you think you’ve got what it takes?’ That moment has always stuck with me because it is a tough business. Every day I’m charged with the responsibility of having some other person’s life in my hands.”
Although Pilate and Morgan have never formally co-chaired, they brainstorm on each other’s significant cases—every single one—and lend moral support. “We kind of spur each other on. In tired moments we tend to inspire each other,” Pilate says. “When one of us has a big development, boy, the phone is whipped out and we’re texting each other. And we push each other to think of the best arguments. Neither one of us is possessive about having the best idea. What excites us is the argument that results from the synergy of our thinking and talking and debating together.”
“I love to watch Cheryl in action. She’s a genius,” Morgan says. “I’ve never seen anybody like that, who doesn’t take everything at face value and is willing to dig, dig, dig. Even when someone says, ‘Oh well, the person wouldn’t talk to me,’ she says, ‘Well, let’s see if we can find another way.’ Her tenacity and her persistence and her relentlessness are like none other.”
Pilate praises Morgan’s ability to establish a rapport with her clients, ferret out mitigating circumstances and convince prosecutors to take those facts into account. “Most importantly,” says Pilate, “she has what I would call jaw-dropping success persuading courts. A lot of federal judges have heard it all before. And the argument comes from her in a way that is really fresh and free of pretense and very authentic. She is the storyteller. I love to investigate and develop facts and shape a case, but if you ask me who would be the best at making an opening statement or a closing argument, I’d say, hands down, it’s Melanie.”
Despite their successes, the partners keep their operation low-key—no advertising, no horn tooting, no active website—and shield clients from media attention when necessary. “An accusation stays with a person for their whole life. It’s like a tattoo you can’t remove,” says Morgan. “We have an internal drive to see our clients get the justice that we believe they deserve, and that’s really what propels us. It’s not being in the press.”
Nevertheless, it has become increasingly difficult to keep their exploits quiet. In 2011, in what would become the first U.S. criminal case involving the Rwandan genocide, Morgan defended an 84-year-old Topeka man accused of participating in the atrocities in his native country. Unable to charge him with crimes committed abroad, the U.S. government set out to prove that he lied on his immigration and citizenship forms. Morgan worked tirelessly to arrange for 27 Rwandan witnesses, most of whom spoke no English and had never even seen electricity or running water, to fly to the U.S. The team also discovered that prosecutors had withheld information that would have acquitted her client. Morgan was insulted by their probation offer. “It was so incredibly wrong,” she says. “It’s not OK to let a man with exceptional character be marred by the fact that the prosecution made a mistake.” Had her client accepted, she asserts, he would have been deported and likely would not have survived the Rwandan prison system.
To the surprise of Kerns, who worked with her on the case, Morgan insisted on turning down the slap-on-the-wrist offer and threatened to expose the government for hiding pertinent facts unless the charges were dropped. The prosecutors dismissed the charges and agreed to never file civil removal immigration proceedings against her client.
“After $1.5 million and two years invested in prosecuting this old man, little Melanie Morgan of Kansas City sent the feds packing,” says Kerns. “It’s a testament to how relentlessly [Morgan and Pilate] fight.”
A long-shot triumph came for Pilate in 2010, when Barron Bowling, a cement worker beaten by an enraged DEA agent in 2003 after their cars collided on a one-lane street in Kansas City, Kan., was awarded $833,250 in a civil trial against the federal government. She won another settlement against local law enforcement officials and now represents a detective who allegedly lost his job after testifying on her client’s behalf in that case.
“If there’s one thing that Melanie and I really care deeply about, it’s injustice, particularly when the injustice results from the misuse or abuse of power,” Pilate says. “The police and the prosecutors have extraordinary power and extraordinary resources, and there have to be people who are willing to challenge them.”
Says Morgan, “There is just the deepest feeling of personal satisfaction in knowing that we made a difference, even if it’s in just one person’s life, that nobody else in the world cares about except for us. It really does propel us and gives us the energy to keep working on the next case.”