Ron Meshbesher: ‘I Love Practicing Law’

Remembering a candid Q&A with the legendary Minnesota criminal defense attorney from 2010

Published in 2017 Minnesota Super Lawyers — August 2017

The family of Ron Meshbesher announced this week that the legendary Minnnesota attorney is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. In March 2010, we spent several hours with Meshbesher in his Minneapolis office having a wide-ranging and candid conversation on the law and its discontents: from the Piper kidnapping case to the changing terminology used in court. Some of the Q&A, including Meshbesher’s role in the 2009 Coen brothers’ film, A Serious Man, made it into the 2010 Super Lawyers issue. What follows is a never-before-seen portion of our conversation.

How often does the legal community get together these days—like at last night’s farewell party to Minnesota Law & Politics?

Not as much as they used to—that was a big crowd. One of the reasons is we have splinter organizations that are pretty powerful.

Ron Meshbesher, legendary Minnesota criminal defense attorney, talks about some of the big cases of his career.Lawyers are dividing into practice areas.

Yep. I think the percentage is way down in terms of the members who have joined the Minnesota State Bar. My appearances are down, too. I used to go to all of those damned meetings. But it’s getting to the point where, shit, most of my buddies are either retired or dead.

So why keep coming to the office?

Oh, I love practicing law. I love trial work. People think of me primarily as a criminal defense lawyer, and for most of my years I would say that was about 90 percent of my practice; but they don’t realize when I left the county attorney’s office [in 1961], the guy that hired me had an inventory of personal injury cases. I had never tried a PI case but he just threw them at me. But a PI case doesn’t have the pizzazz a criminal case has.

Because...?

Because it just doesn’t. It’s not a murder case, or a million-dollar theft case, or fraud. When a jury says, “Not guilty,” it’s a feeling criminal defense lawyers would give anything to hear every day of their life. In a PI case, you know, they just give you $50,000.

But representing a plaintiff is a lot more difficult than representing a defendant in a criminal case. The plaintiff has to prepare the case and they have to go first; in a criminal case you can sit back and pick away at the prosecution’s case. Sometimes you never even call any witnesses. It’s basically a cross-examination case.

I handled a lot of divorce cases, too. Because of my reputation as a criminal defense lawyer, people thought I was a tough son of a bitch, and there’s nothing a person getting divorced wants on their side more than a tough son of a bitch. But at a point I just didn’t like doing them anymore. It involved holding hands and settling cases. I did try some. Some went up to the [Minnesota] Supreme Court and made law, too.

We’re talking family law?

They didn’t call it family law then, they called it divorce law. They used to claim it was adversarial: So-and-So is suing So-and-So. Now it’s In re Marriage of... Well, it’s the same goddamn thing. The husbands and wives are still at each other’s throats.

They’re all euphemisms. There are no jails anymore; they’re public safety facilities. There are no rape cases anymore; it’s criminal sexual conduct. I think it’s a big mistake, particularly in the rape area: You’ve got to call a rape a rape. It’s too soft a term: criminal sexual conduct.

Is this language true in court cases nationwide?

I think it’s a national trend. But Minnesota embraced it in the late ’70s. They change the fucking terminology on you all the time. I’d much rather say “I’m in jail” instead of “I’m in the public safety facility.” Everybody knows what a jail is.

Any of your cases go before the U.S. Supreme Court?

Only one case for a decision, and my partner, John Sheehy, argued it. It was a 1983 case, where we sued the FBI for breaking into a house in St. Paul in search of a bank robber. The house they broke into was the brother of the bank robber, who was a pretty straight guy, with a wife and a couple of kids, and they scared the piss out of these people. On the ground with their guns on them.

Harry Blackmun was on the bench, and he grew up in St. Paul, and he interrupted John and asked, “Now tell me, Mr. Sheehy, where did this take place in St. Paul? Was it near...?” That was a question he asked. It had nothing to do with the case. But we lost, 6-3, and it’s an oft-cited case, a leading case, which gives the government a lot more power than they should have.

I had one case that got close to granting certiorari in the Supreme Court. It was an insanity case. My client murdered five people. He found out his wife was running off with his next-door-neighbor. They lived on a farm in Pine City and he just went completely berserk. He shot his wife, he shot the neighbor, he shot the neighbor’s two kids, and then a bullet ricocheted and killed his four-year-old son. So there were five deaths. And it was obviously an insanity case, which is the worst case you can have in front of a jury.

He got convicted. I appealed it to the Supreme Court. It had to do with jury instructions—not a sexy issue. We were denied certiorari but I think we got two judges on our side. You need four. So that ended that case. The guy’s still in prison. I don’t think he’s a danger to anybody—I just think he went a little berserk that day and did a terrible thing. But when you kill all those people, good luck.

When you and Joe Friedberg did a Q&A for Law & Politics five years ago, he mentioned that he got inspired by you because, he said, “This guy looks like he’s having a lot of fun.” What makes the law fun for you?

Every case is a challenge. And I never like to lose. To lose a case that you expect to win is the worst thing that can happen. It only happened to me once.

Which case?

The Piper kidnapping. I was absolutely convinced that both defendants in that case were not guilty, completely innocent, and framed by the government. Fortunately I got a new trial. In the first trial the jury was out for five days. I found out the first vote was 10 to 2 for acquittal. It was an engineer from IBM who turned that whole jury around but it took him four or five days to do it.

A reverse 12 Angry Men.

Yeah, he turned them to convict instead of acquit. He looked at certain coincidences. But the coincidences were all of the government’s making. Some of them weren’t even true, but he took it as if they were true coincidences, and convinced the jury. But we got a reversal in the 8th circuit.

The Piper kidnapping was probably the most fascinating case I ever tried. I lump that with the Congdon murder case and with another murder case—a case I never expected to win. The jury acquitted the guy. His name was ... He’s out on death row now in California for another murder. Kenny! Kenny Hayes. His real first name was Royal. Royal K. Hayes.

He had actually been convicted of murder in Oregon before the Minnesota case, but he was acquitted on the ground of insanity and put into a hospital facility. He escaped from that, came to Minnesota, got two armed robberies and went into prison. He was a handsome man, 138 IQ, and he went to some of the best schools on the East Coast. He had these still, blue eyes—the scariest eyes I’d ever seen.

After he served his time for the robberies, Kenny worked in real estate. He was a charmer and had a good gift of gab. And in 1976, he was arrested and accused of murdering the manager of the Roaring ’20s bar on Hennepin. He was there with his wife—a secretary at Dorsey & Whitney. They were out on New Year’s Eve, celebrating, and he excused himself and went to the basement to go to the men’s room. Within minutes, people heard gunshots. The bouncers went down there, and they grabbed my client, Kenny, as he was coming out of the men’s room. They went in the men’s room and they saw the manager’s body on the floor—dead. And Kenny literally had the smoking gun in his hand.

There was nobody else in the bathroom?

He claimed there was somebody else in the bathroom, and that he tried to break up a fight between the manager and this other guy; and during that fight, Kenny’s gun—he had his wife’s gun—was knocked out and this stranger picked it up and killed the manager. He said the guy put the gun in his hand and then ran out. Kind of a bizarre story. Nobody ever saw the other guy, at all, and I thought it was bullshit. But I had my investigator put an ad in the paper for a witness.

Lo and behold, a witness comes up and tells us, “I knew the guy was in the bathroom because he told me. We both were going to the funeral [of the manager] and he admitted to being in the bathroom and he killed the guy.” He corroborated my client’s story. I couldn’t believe it. So I called the [alleged] shooter as a witness, and he confirmed he was in the bathroom, and he admitted he ran out, and he claims he ran out because he was on parole and should not have been in the bar.

But he didn’t admit to the murder.

No. But everything else. He said he saw my client kill him.

But he turned out to be a scumbag. He had rape cases, and I brought his record out and the jury fucking hated him. I forgot how long we tried it but the jury acquitted.

And you were surprised.

Oh yeah. It was his wife’s gun, he was down there, he came out, literally, with the smoking gun in his hand. [Laughs] I mean, nobody would give me a chance in hell of winning that case.

But later he’s convicted of killing someone in California?

Murdering two college kids, a man and his girlfriend, on the campus of UC Santa Cruz. Chopping them up and burying them on the campus grounds.

That must be tough. Do you ever feel guilty as a result of that kind of thing? “If I hadn’t gotten him off, maybe these two people would still be alive.”

You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t have those thoughts. But if you go into criminal defense work, you’re not the judge and you’re not the jury. And if you can’t handle it, you’re in the wrong phase of the practice.

In general I think juries do not make mistakes. I think the only case where I could be absolutely certain of an acquittal was the Piper kidnapping case.

Which originally was a guilty verdict.

A guilty verdict. I got a new trial because the judge refused to let me bring in a woman at the last minute, who claimed her husband and his gang committed the kidnapping and she overheard them talking about it.

In the second trial I also proved something I didn’t in the first trial. The key evidence was a fingerprint of the co-defendant, a guy named Don Larson. He’s the guy that killed those five people. Remember my client in Pine City?

You’re kidding.

He was one of the defendants in the Piper case. The other defendant was a guy named [Kenneth] Callahan. A criminal defense lawyer who used to office upstairs here, Bruce Hartigan, took Larson’s case. I gave him the tougher case. “I had Larson once. You take Larson, I’ll take Callahan.” The indictment hung on a fingerprint that the FBI claimed they got from the getaway car in the kidnapping.

So just to double check: Virginia Piper was kidnapped in ’72 and held for $1 million ransom, but the case didn’t go to trial until ’77?

And it was tried a second time in ’78, just a couple of months after the Congdon case. The Congdon case was 16 weeks—I think it’s still the longest criminal case in Minnesota history—and the second Piper trial was eight weeks. So I spent almost half the year on those two cases. But the Congdon case really helped me with the Piper case. Here’s how.

In the Congdon case, I was able to prove that the fingerprint of [my client’s husband], Roger Caldwell, which the prosecutor used to get a conviction in a separate case a year before, was misidentified by the state’s fingerprint expert.

My fingerprint expert was a jack of all trades. Herb MacDonell. Smart as hell. He was a chemist for Dow Corning in New York, but he’d retired and got involved in forensics. Herb said the fingerprint was not only not Roger Caldwell’s fingerprint, it wasn’t even a fingerprint; it was a thumbprint. And it wasn’t Caldwell’s thumbprint, either. He also said, in his opinion, somebody altered the fingerprint.

I said, “You mean forged? He was hesitant to use the word but finally on the witness stand, he said, “Yes.”

The prosecutor thought he was bullshitting them, and he asked the judge for permission to take some of the evidence back to his motel room: “I just want to review the records for closing arguments.” I knew exactly what he was doing. He was going to have somebody else look at the fingerprints. This was on a Friday. He comes back Monday with a hangdog look on his face. He says, “Let’s go in chambers.” And he said, “I think it’s my obligation to tell the jury, ‘Look, we took the evidence and had a person examine them, and he agreed with Mr. MacDonell’s testimony and he’s going to stipulate it that his testimony was accurate.’”

I said, “I want to call him as my witness.” Now he’s my witness. And he confirms everything MacDonell said.

That’s gotta be fun.

Oh yeah. You just don’t get those. You read ’em, you see ’em on TV and in the movies. But it happened.

So after the Congdon case, I called Herb up and told him about the [Piper kidnapping] case. I said, “Do you have time to look at another print?” He said, “That was only the second time in my whole career I said a fingerprint was misidentified or tampered with. You’re wasting your time.” I said, “Do me a favor.”

So we send him up to take a look at it and he says, “This fingerprint is a phony. It might have been one time a picture of a fingerprint, but it’s not the same picture they originally took. They altered it.”

Did you say, “You mean forged?”

[Laughs] I said, “Can you come testify to that? We’re in the middle of this goddamned Piper trial.” So he comes down, shows all these charts and absolutely convinced me. He says, “What you might want to do, since a lot of this has to do with photography”—he was an amateur photographer, too, he was an amateur everything, this guy, although he was a real pro in my opinion—“you might want to get a commercial photographer just to back me up and corroborate it.”

So I got a commercial photographer, who absolutely confirmed that this was a photo. After we called these guys as witnesses, we rested our case, and the prosecution rested without calling a rebuttal witness. Now what does that tell you? They fucked up the fingerprint. The jury was out in less than three hours and acquitted them.

So it seems a good lawyer still needs a lot of good people around him—either investigators or fingerprint experts.

There’s no question: The key to any trial, whether it’s a civil or a criminal trial, is a thorough investigation and a constant search for other pieces of evidence. What you see in the courtroom is maybe 10 percent of what the case is about.

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