The Right Man for the Job

The law was Robert Ritter's destiny

Published in 2007 Missouri & Kansas Super Lawyers — November 2007

Some people know what their life's work is going to be without any question or struggle. Others have it literally shoved down their throats.

St. Louis attorney Robert Ritter attended the University of Kansas in the 1960s. An athletic man then -- and still fit and well-tuned in his early 60s -- Ritter played catcher for his fraternity baseball team.

One game, a batter knocked a pop fly high over home plate and Ritter stepped out to catch it. The batter took off for first base, flinging the bat behind him. The bat smashed Ritter in the mouth, knocking out four teeth.

Ritter had no insurance. When he called the careless hitter the next day to ask if he could help with the dental bill, the guy hung up on him. A few days later, he got a nasty letter from a lawyer warning him not to contact his client again. The letter was couched in a dense, threatening language that Ritter had difficulty comprehending. Thoroughly intimidated, he paid the bills himself.

Today, he chuckles at the story, but something lingers in his expression, a trace of the sour injustice of the experience. "I realized that, in the future, if I wanted to protect myself and my family, I'd have to learn the language. I never wanted to feel that helpless again. That's when I decided to become a lawyer."

Ritter makes for an impressive-looking attorney -- handsome face, a splash of gray hair at the temples, glasses with clear plastic rims. He looks every inch the wise legal sage. He speaks softly, enunciating each word in evenly measured beats.

Ritter is chairman of the St. Louis firm Gray, Ritter & Graham, a small, closely held company consisting of 10 lawyers and a support staff of more than 30 professionals. The firm was founded in 1946 by Charles E. Gray. "We prefer to remain lean and mean," Ritter says. "We think it makes us much more effective and manageable."

He describes himself as a civil trial attorney. "I've handled cases from A to Z," Ritter says. "Medical negligence; products liability; automobile, trucking and aviation accidents; railroad and river worker injuries; business litigation; consumer litigation."

During the early years of his career, Ritter's trial practice was primarily for the defense. The opportunity to prepare and try a large volume of cases made for great training. "I believe a good trial lawyer should be able to take any case and learn enough about it to effectively present it to a jury," he says. "But it takes a while. When you start out, you only see the individual pieces of the case. Then one day you wake up and you are able to put all those pieces together.

"Success is achieved through a combination of self-confidence, street smarts and thorough preparation. You've got to be willing to take risks. Above all, you must have compassion for your client. The jury will take notice if you're not sincere."

Ritter met his wife, Karen Lee Gray, while both were attending Kirkwood High School in suburban St. Louis. He was in law school at St. Louis University when he proposed. Karen's father was the aforementioned Charles E. Gray, an internationally known trial lawyer in St. Louis.

Gray gave the couple his blessing. Then he told Ritter he wanted him to start work in his firm the following Monday. When Ritter asked him what sort of law he'd be practicing, Gray told him to come to the office on Monday and he'd find out.

"He was my mentor," Ritter remembers. "He was the best lawyer I had ever seen. He grew up on a farm in eastern Missouri. He was a humble man who knew the value of hard work."

A few early cases involving musicians -- Chuck Berry, actress Ann Miller and Sheryl Crow -- helped establish Ritter's career. But representing celebrities meant little to him. "I like representing the everyday person," he says.

Another early case that helped establish his growing reputation involved the Six Flags amusement park in St. Louis. In July 1978, a popular sky ride featuring cable cars crumpled in a high wind, spilling three people to the ground, killing two.

Six Flags had little idea why the failure occurred. But with the help of engineers and an elaborate model of the sky ride assembled by an expert who worked at the Smithsonian Institution, Ritter and his associates figured out what caused the tragedy. Factors such as a bad squeak, indicating inadequate lubrication, and the infamous St. Louis humidity, which caused the bushings to expand, contributed to the accident. The ride was ultimately dismantled by Six Flags.

"He's not only an extraordinary lawyer, but an extraordinary human being," says Missouri Supreme Court Judge Rick Teitelman. "During his career, he has represented people from every spectrum of society."

Looking back, many cases stand out for Ritter. He represented a family of five against Toyota for two deaths and devastating injuries resulting from multiple seat-belt defects. Several years later, Ritter reached a record settlement for a young child who sustained severe brain damage as a result of an anesthesia error during surgery.

But the benchmark of Ritter's professional life was the Patricia Stallings case.

Five-month-old Ryan Stallings, son of Patty and David Stallings, was diagnosed on two separate occasions, in July and September 1989, as having been poisoned by ethylene glycol, a highly toxic substance and the primary ingredient in antifreeze. When Ryan died in early September 1989, samples of this compound were allegedly found in his bloodstream.

Patty, the mother, was charged with the murder of her infant son by the Jefferson County, Mo., prosecuting attorney. Represented by a lawyer other than Ritter, she was convicted of all charges on January 31, 1991, and sentenced to life imprisonment without possibility of parole.

Post-sentencing, Ritter learned of her case through a fellow lawyer who called him after being contacted by the Stallings family. He insisted that Bob watch an episode of the TV show "Unsolved Mysteries," which raised the question of whether Patty Stallings had actually poisoned her child, or whether he was the victim of a rare genetic disease.

Ritter watched the tape and was intrigued. He arranged an interview with Patty Stallings at the Renz Correctional Center for Women in Jefferson City. "Patty was having a rough time there," Ritter says. "She was subject to a constant barrage of abuse -- to female inmates, the worst kind of person was one who killed her own child.

"We sat on a bench in the jailyard," Ritter remembers, "and talked for four or five hours. I don't know what it was -- a gut feeling, maybe -- but I came away absolutely convinced that she had not poisoned her baby."

The evidence that initially convicted Patty was based on the testimony of expert witnesses -- experts who not only provided but interpreted the laboratory data that showed the presence of ethylene glycol both in the body fluids of Ryan Stallings and in samples from a baby bottle fed to Ryan by his mother shortly before his final illness.

On July 29, 1991, Ritter obtained a new trial for Patty Stallings and presented evidence that St. Louis University physicians in cooperation with Dr. Piero Rinaldo, a world-renowned geneticist formerly at Yale University, had concluded that Ryan Stallings had not been poisoned but had died from a rare, inherited metabolic disease known as methylmalonic acidemia, or MMA. Ritter and his associates proved that the doctors who had originally examined Ryan during his two hospitalizations had failed to diagnose him as having MMA, a fact that eventually proved fatal. The laboratories misinterpreted their own data and just assumed that the abnormal substances were ethylene glycol.

The Jefferson County prosecutor and the Jefferson County Circuit Court dismissed all charges against Patty on September 19, 1991. At a press conference in Ritter's office, the prosecutor made an unprecedented apology to Patty and her family on behalf of the state of Missouri.

Ritter successfully filed an action to get the baby's death certificate corrected. He also filed the first case under a criminal record expungement act passed by Missouri. As a result, Patty Stallings' criminal record was cleared.

"In regard to the Stallings case," says Teitelman, "I don't think there is another lawyer in America who could have done what Bob Ritter did."

A TV movie about the case was made, Without a Kiss Goodbye, with Ritter serving as a consultant. Inside Edition also did a feature. Currently, MSNBC is preparing a new show that will air in October 2007, in which the case will be featured. The case has appeared in medical publications around the world.

Even though he can look back on a substantial legacy, Ritter says retirement is nowhere in sight. "I may lighten the volume of my caseload," he says, "but I have no plans to step down."

In 2003, in recognition of his distinguished record, Ritter was given the "Award of Honor," the St. Louis lawyer's equivalent of the Oscar, Emmy and Most Valuable Player Award, all rolled into one.

"Bob Ritter is the epitome of personal honor in the legal profession," says Steve Ringkamp, managing partner of the Hullverson Law Firm in St. Louis. "There is no finer lawyer in the profession."

Ritter says he'll settle for being remembered as a decent lawyer. "The Stallings case," he says, "was one of those opportunities a lawyer gets maybe once or twice in his career to really make a life-changing difference for the client as well as a positive change in the way things are done. It was extremely rewarding to me personally. To be able to give hope and a fresh start to people who deserve it is a tremendous thrill."

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