Tommy Ullman, An Unbearable Loss

            There are angels among us, some say, pillars of strength with common feet of clay. I’m not sure I believe that, but I do believe that there are people worthy of sainthood. People like Tommy Ullman.

         Tommy died the other day. I’m told it was a hiking accident in the Adirondacks, a region he loved.

         He was for decades a public defender in New Haven; he led the office for a quarter of century. When retired last year, at 67, many of us felt it was too soon. But he’d seen good friends grow sick and die. Life is short he knew. “I feel healthy. But these catastrophic things that can happen — there are a lot of things I want to do in my life,” he told an interviewer.

         Public defenders walk in the shadows. They are the court-appointed lawyers for folks accused of crimes but without the means to hire their counsel of choice. Too often their clients complain that they don’t have “real lawyers;” they have, what prisoners like to say, “public pretenders,” or “state lawyers.”

         Tommy Ullman was no pretender. And he was no state lawyer. He was the real deal, a warrior, a friend to the damned. He was always generous with his time and talents, returning every call by fellow lawyers seeking his advice and counsel.

         One of life’s grand mysteries is our ability to live together in peace. The rule of law largely makes that possible. But the law’s bonds are fragile, and are often broken. Criminal defense lawyers are called upon to deal with the law’s efforts to mend these broken bonds.

         I’ll always remember Tommy’s courageous defense of the Steven Hayes, one of the defendants in the Cheshire home invasion in 2007.

         He was driving with the top down in his convertible, enjoying the summer sunshine, when he got a call about a terrible home invasion. A mother and her daughters were murdered in a house set ablaze in Cheshire, part of the New Haven Judicial District, the husband and father was savagely beaten but escaped death.

         In an instant, Tommy knew what the future held. His office would be assigned the defense of a man whom the state would seek to execute. At once, public opinion would be enflamed, the defendants hated. Plenty of people would have been happy to see Tommy’s client lynched on the New Haven green.

         Not Tommy. His role was to be counselor and friend to the damned. Hayes was entitled to a fair trial. Whatever the man’s crimes, however strong the state’s case, Tommy’s role was to stand beside him to the end, to assure that passion and anger were replaced by the law’s metes and bounds.

         I watched Tommy defend Hayes in awe. He offered no apology for standing resolutely for the principle that no man is the sum of his worst moments, while harboring no illusions that the allegations against his client were truly heinous. But Tommy knew that far worse than the crime committed by Hayes would be a system of justice that met the darkness of the crime with blind rage. Tommy’s defense of Hayes was civilizing.

         Hayes, of course, was convicted, and then sentenced to death. I don’t think Tommy was bitter. He’d done his best. He was a warrior walking among the shadows; he did what defense lawyers do – he fought, like Odysseus, against impossible odds, never yielding to despair, and always seeking hope in hopeless places.

         I loved Tommy for the defense, as I love him still, and will forever more.

         News of his death came like a thunderbolt. The first real day of spring, and, finally, a time to sigh with relief. Then comes news of this death. A titan has fallen, and is now gone forever. Somehow the living endure the loss of each good thing.

         Tommy loved the outdoors. If he died doing what he loved, there’s something approaching consolation in that. Our passions define us; we are what we love. Tommy loved to defend, he loved the outdoors, and he loved his family.

         Many of us loved him. Today we mourn the loss of this much-loved, and much-admired man. Tomorrow beckons. Somehow we will have to summon his courage to face it.


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