WILSON - When this country was in its infancy, doctors were applying leeches to various parts of President George Washington's body to treat his medical ailments. A physician withdrew 4 to 5 pounds of Washington's blood for a "treatment" that modern doctors believe probably helped kill him in 1799.
Yet even with such inept medical care, Americans have thrived and prospered, thanks in large part to the efforts of trial lawyers. And these same attorneys, though much maligned today, are still more vital to the people of this nation than are doctors.
That is, if you agree with Gerry Spence, the famous "country lawyer" from Wyoming who is about to celebrate his 80th birthday.
"This country was founded on the proposition that we have freedoms, and those freedoms are only preserved through the efforts of trial lawyers in court," Spence said.
Though he has largely been out of the national limelight since his high-profile cable news appearances as a commentator during the first O.J. Simpson trial more than a decade ago, Spence has been keeping busy. In his 56th year of practicing law, he won yet another high-profile case this year against the federal government, and he was honored with a first-of-its-kind lifetime achievement award from a prominent trial lawyers' group last month.
He is universally considered one of the greatest trial lawyers of his time: He has never lost a criminal case and has won every civil case he's litigated in nearly 40 years.
Spence previously announced he was retiring after his most recent trial, but he didn't rule out a comeback during a recent interview with the Star-Tribune.
In his log home just outside of Jackson, with pine woods and a large pond in the picture window behind him, Spence explained it this way: "I am retired unless I find a case that says I have to come out of retirement."
He went on to joke about what it means to retire, waxing faux-philosophical:
"Well, I think retirement, in effect, is opening a new door, and it's called, 'Bye, bye world,"' he said. "It's called, 'The end of the road.' It's called, 'Call the undertaker."'
But Kent Spence, his son and partner, said Gerry's life bears little resemblance to retirement, no matter what Dad says.
Gerry has published 16 books with the 17th forthcoming, he writes a regularly updated blog, he still teaches at the Trial Lawyers College that he founded, he continues honing his art as a photographer, and he still works on cases for his law firm, among many other things.
Before the photographer started snapping shots for this story, Spence threw on his trademark, tasseled buckskin jacket.
His wife, Imaging, quipped that her husband would get angry phone calls and letters if he appeared in the newspaper without it.
Spence's face is permanently tanned from a lifetime in the Wyoming sun. The lines on his cheeks and forehead are deep like an old cowboy's, but his eyes sparkle with youth when he talks about his two dogs, his early days as a lawyer in Fremont County and his courtroom philosophy of being, first and foremost, a "human being."
His longish gray hair still falls over his ears and the back of his neck, and his baritone voice still fills a cavernous room.
If there is a stereotype of how an 80-year-old man looks, lives and behaves, Spence is about to do it great damage on Jan. 8, when he celebrates that birthday.
The Fieger case
Spence still has a way with juries.
This summer he won the acquittal of Geoffrey Fieger, the lawyer who represented Dr. Jack Kevorkian, and who was charged with conspiring to donate more than $125,000 to former Sen. John Edwards' presidential campaign.
Spence argued that Fieger had been targeted for political reasons by President George W. Bush's Department of Justice. The federal jury acquitted Fieger on all 10 counts.
Spence admits this most recent courtroom battle was exceptionally hard on him.
"This last case that I finished was a seven-week trial, and it took me a full two months to get back again to a place where I could sleep and function," Spence said. He restored his mug of coffee to the dining table, gently, with a steady hand.
Good trial lawyers, Spence believes, often suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
"The stress is so heavy and the risks are so great," he said. "They're not great if you don't care. And there are lawyers who, in order to survive in this business, they don't care. They don't feel it, and don't care about it."
It doesn't mean they're bad attorneys, Spence said. They're just people trying to survive.
"My position is, if a lawyer doesn't care, doesn't truly care about what happens to his client, how can he ask the jury to care?"
'Bigger than life'
Spence first gained national recognition in 1974 when he successfully represented the family of Karen Silkwood against the Kerr-McGee Corp.
Silkwood had worked at a plutonium fuel rod plant where she and her co-workers were exposed to hazardous radiation. She became one of the original corporate whistleblowers, and she died under suspicious circumstances on her way to taking evidence of a company cover-up to a newspaper reporter.
The jury awarded the Silkwood family more than $10 million on behalf of her children.
It was a story that captured the nation's interest, and which would eventually become the subject of an Oscar-winning movie starring Meryl Streep.
After the Silkwood case, Spence went on to win a string of big-money verdicts, including $52 million against the McDonald's Corp., $46 million against Aetna Insurance Co. and a $26 million libel verdict against Penthouse magazine, when he represented former Miss Wyoming Kimberli Jayne Pring.
He also won the acquittal, on racketeering charges, of former Filipino first lady Imelda Marcos, won the exoneration of Randy Weaver in the famous Ruby Ridge trial, and successfully defended Ed Cantrell, a Rock Springs law enforcement officer who was accused of murder. He also won a civil case on behalf of the Randy Weaver family, in which they were awarded $3 million-plus.
In 2006, Spence represented attorney Brandon Mayfield, whom the FBI arrested after mistakenly linking him to the 2004 Madrid train bombings. Mayfield received a $2 million settlement and an almost unheard-of formal apology from the federal government. The case also led to changes in the USA Patriot Act that were deemed unconstitutional.
The Mayfield case remains one of Spence's proudest moments, said Laury McGinnis, his assistant.
Spence has also been a sometime television pundit and legal analyst, most prominently during the O.J. Simpson murder trial.
In his two-volume encyclopedia, "Great American Lawyers," political science professor John Vile described Spence as an "artist" and a master storyteller.
Spence's longtime friend and colleague, former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson, went further.
"He's the most effective man in front of a jury that I ever met," Simpson said. "And I've known a lot of great lawyers. And he's still going, powerful as ever."
By phone from Washington, D.C., last week, Simpson offered a window into their spirited friendship, saying, "I'll tell you whatever you want to know about that miserable b - - - - - -d."
The truth is, despite their political differences - Simpson is a prominent Republican and Spence has been known to call Republicans "corporate toadies," among other things - Simpson loves and admires Spence.
"He's put more into 80 years than guys can put into 180 years, and he's still here, and that's the most amazing part," Simpson said. "He is bigger than life. He's just one of those rare human beings who can slip between Shakespeare and (balderdash) with equal skill. He's very earthy, direct, honest, blunt, tactful, smooth, strong, tough, tender. He'll have a great 80. He deserves it. He's a special friend."
The group formerly known as the California Trial Lawyers Association awarded its first-ever lifetime achievement award last month - and it gave it to the country lawyer from the Cowboy State.
The organization has changed its name to the Consumer Attorneys of California, which is a shame, in Spence's opinion.
"They changed their name because they were ashamed of being trial lawyers, which is a terrible, terrible thing," he said. "Trial lawyers have become demonized so that they are seen as greedy, self-serving people. Which is pretty sad, because most of the trial lawyers that I know of fight very hard for the rights of little people."
But if the reputations of lawyers can be smeared and they can be demonized, it serves "big government and corporations" that dominate the average American, he said.
"And that's exactly what the power structure wants in this country," Spence argued. "If you haven't got anybody to fight for you that a juror will believe - if you walk into court and you are a trial lawyer and the juror says, 'Oh, that's one of those trial lawyers, he's not to be trusted' - you've lost your case before you even begin. So how do you preserve your rights?"
Lawyers need to be proud of who they are and what they do, Spence said, and they also have to be "real" and "honest" and better human beings both inside and outside the courtroom.
"That's what we try to teach in Trial Lawyers College, is to teach people to be real. We have to re-teach people who have been taught to be unreal by professors in law school."
The impostor complex
Success, at its core, is mostly attributable to an accident of birth, Spence said.
The award from the California trial lawyers was an honor, and it meant a lot to him. But there is another side of him that is reticent to accept the praise, he said.
"Yes, the honor is meaningful to me, but if you begin to recognize how most of it is a result of pure alignment of the stars, of luck, then you don't get too heady about it."
Luck has more to do with one's accomplishments than any other single factor, Spence said.
The Silkwood case, for example, came to him as "a fluke."
"I had a guy working out at my ranch for the summer," Spence said. "He was a professor, and he was a supporter of the women's group called NOW, and they had this lawsuit against Kerr-McGee, and they were looking for a lawyer. And he went and talked to the group, and he said, 'You know, you ought to hire Gerry Spence. He's a good lawyer."'
In a larger sense, if he had been born at a different time, in a different state, to different parents, was educated differently and grew up with different experiences, he almost certainly wouldn't have had the opportunities he did have, he said.
"All of the things that line out the stars so that you can make your life worthwhile in the final analysis," Spence said. "And forgive yourself for all of the things that you've done in your life that aren't worthwhile. A lot of it is luck. I don't take very much credit for it."
And then there's the impostor.
"There's a psychological phenomenon called the imposter complex," Spence said. "The imposter complex is held by people who never can accept that they've done anything worthwhile. They only think they must have fooled everybody. They're an imposter. And I'm sure there'll be people out there that'll say that isn't just a psychological thing that you suffer - you have to fool a lot of people. There are plenty of people who would say that."
But then he expresses great pride, too.
As he describes it, the bulk of his career he has been a warrior of sorts, standing up to huge, heartless, faceless corporations and fighting for the "little people." He's also continuously taken on a powerful, ever-encroaching federal government, helping to preserve individual freedoms.
Although he spent a small part of his career as a prosecutor, and even represented insurance companies for a short while, he did eventually see "the light," as he's put it in the past, and has devoted the rest of his life to representing regular people.
People in general can live without doctors, he said, but they can't remain free without trial lawyers.
Reporter Chris Merrill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (307) 267-6722.
Some of Gerry Spence's high-profile cases:
* 1974 - The Karen Silkwood case; won $10.5 million on behalf of her children.
* 1979 - Won the acquittal of Ed Cantrell, a Rock Springs law enforcement officer who was charged with murder.
* 1981 - Represented former Miss Wyoming Kimberli Pring against Penthouse magazine - won $26.5 million for defamation.
* 1984 - McDonald's case; received a $52 million verdict against McDonald's Corp. on behalf of a family-owned ice cream company for breach of an oral contract.
* 1990 - Imelda Marcos; won acquittal of the former Filipino first lady on racketeering charges.
* 1992 - Emotional damages; won a record-breaking $15 million verdict for a quadriplegic client whose insurance company failed to pay a $50,000 policy 20 years earlier. Two weeks later $18.5 million was added in punitive damages.
* 1993 - Ruby Ridge trial; won exoneration of Randy Weaver on murder, assault, conspiracy and gun charges in the famous Idaho federal standoff case.
* 2006 - Mayfield case; at the age of 77, Spence represented attorney Brandon Mayfield, whom the FBI arrested after mistakenly linking him to the 2004 Madrid train bombings. Mayfield received a $2 million settlement and an almost-unheard-of formal apology from the federal government.
* 2008 - Geoffrey Fieger; at the age of 79, Spence won the full acquittal of Fieger, who was charged with 10 counts of conspiring to donate more than $125,000 to former Sen. John Edwards' presidential campaign.