Two Of My Favorite Mouthpieces

Flamboyant defense lawyers have always fascinated me.

The first one I ever met was Ernie Navarre. I met him long ago in Lima, Ohio. Navarre wore a gold watch and a different suit every day. He drove a big car. But he also regularly undertook the defense of seemingly hopeless criminal cases.

There was the case of Ralph Forsythe, himself a colorful criminal who had just returned to Lima after serving a prison term. It was a town where you could go into the pool halls downtown and bet on baseball, football or horse racing. In short, it was wide open. Forsythe was a big figure in local gambling. The Lima police treated him as though he were the modern reincarnation of Al Capone and so did the local newspaper.

The police followed him wherever he went. The newspaper wrote editorials decrying the threat to law and order.

Forsythe didn't disappoint them.

It happened just a few months after Forsythe returned. During an all-night poker game, Forsythe got into an argument with one of the other players. Forsythe pulled a gun from under the table. He shot the other man dead.

All the other players in the game fled, leaving Forsythe with his victim.

Forsythe reacted with great coolness. He picked up the dead man and dragged him to his car. Forsythe drove the body to the tip of southern Ohio where he buried it.

The body was never found. But the other players in the game told their story of the shooting to police. Forsythe was charged with murder.

Billed as the murder case without a body, it became a statewide sensation.

The trial was held in the ancient Allen County Courthouse, a few blocks from the gambling parlors in the town square. Forsythe was housed in the same jail in the courthouse from which John Dillinger once escaped, shooting the sheriff in the process.

Navarre and I were on speaking terms by this time. He arranged for me to interview Forsythe in his cell.

Forsythe himself was a marvelous con man who looked a great deal like Jackie Gleason. He was open and friendly. He professed interest in my newspaper career and declared his innocence. He decried the perfidy of the police who were attempting to frame him and urged that I have the courage to write of his innocence.

The interview made a great Sunday piece but did nothing to improve my budding friendship with Forsythe. I never doubted his guilt for an instant.

But Navarre wasn't one to hold grudges. Most defense attorneys don't. They just move on to the next issue.

"Don't miss today's testimony," Navarre told me about two weeks after the trial got under way. "Something interesting's going to happen."

The state's star witness that day was the man who'd sat next to the man Forsythe was accused of shooting.

I waited impatiently for Navarre's cross-examination.

Navarre was short and slight. But he had a booming voice and a quick mind. He cross-examined in a rapid, belligerent style that terrified witnesses. He paused only to make the witness even more ill at ease.

"You saw Ralph Forsythe with a gun in his hand."

"Yes."

"You say you saw him fire the gun."

"Yes sir, I did."

Navarre walked to the evidence table and picked up the gun. He brought it back to the witness stand.

"Is this the gun?"

"Yes, it most certainly is. I'd never forget it."

Navarre smiled.

"Am I now about the same distance from you as Ralph Forsythe was that night?"

"Yes sir."

"And did he point the gun just like this?"

"Yes, he did." Now the witness looked uneasy.

Navarre raised the pistol and pointed it directly toward the witness's face.

"Yes. That's about right."

Navarre pulled the trigger. He fired the pistol directly at the witness's face. The witness gasped in terror. Spectators gasped.

The judge's mouth opened wide. The prosecutor was so stunned it took him almost a minute before he could begin objecting.

Navarre had somehow inserted a blank shell into the chamber.

"And now tell me what you just saw," Navarre shouted.

The witness sat there, unable to open his mouth. He was too shaken and stunned to speak.

Navarre shouted loud enough so that no one would miss what he was saying:

"And that's what happened on the night of the card game. You were so terrified that you ran away without looking back. You never knew that Ralph Forsythe was also firing a blank round on that night.

"Don't you now realize you're accusing an innocent man?"

"I don't know," the witness said.

"Damned right, you don't know," Navarre said. "No further questions."

Navarre's stunt was talked about for years. As effective at it was, it didn't convince the jury of his client's innocence.

Even though the body was never recovered, Forsythe was found guilty and sent back to prison. But he was free before too many years passed.

Navarre, who operated under tremendous trial pressure, died of a heart attack before he was fifty. Forsythe was over seventy and in comfortable financial circumstances when he died not long ago.

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