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M.A.D.: A Reminiscence

by Gerard J. St. John

Summer 2002, Vol. 65, No. 2

Before there was a Boulevard Extension between Broad Street and the Schuylkill Expressway, Hunting Park Avenue was the "neighborhood highway," the route that experienced drivers took to get from Northeast Philadelphia to City Line Avenue. Every morning, on the way to school, we drove out Hunting Park Avenue, half-asleep and barely noticing the row houses beyond the busy highway. But that changed in the spring of 1959 when the radio broadcast the details of an early morning murder.

The two suspects were brothers, John and William Coyle. One of the brothers stole a bottle of milk from a row house doorstep shortly after the milkman dropped it off. There had been prior thefts in that neighborhood and the milkman had notified the police. An unlucky policeman confronted the thief and was ruthlessly gunned down not far from Hunting Park Avenue. The Coyle brothers then stole a car, kidnapped its owner and fled to New England, where William Coyle was killed in a shootout with the Massachusetts State Police. John Coyle was apprehended and returned to Philadelphia to stand trial on charges of first-degree murder.

It was an open-and-shut case. No one in Philadelphia had any doubt of Coyle's guilt. The major question in the newspapers of the day was which of the high-profile criminal lawyers would be appointed to defend Coyle at his trial. There was widespread surprise when the representation was announced. The defense lawyer would be Mary Alice Duffy, along with her sister, Sara.

In the 1950s there were precious few women lawyers and, at least insofar as the general public was concerned, none of them defended violent criminals. When the trial began, we learned that Mary Alice Duffy could indeed defend a client accused of cold-blooded murder. John Coyle was eventually found guilty as charged, but the district attorney had to fight every inch of the way. Mary Alice was as tough as nails.

She would not concede the time of day. Attempts by her adversary to find common ground would be met with uncommon resistance. When Mary Alice latched onto an idea or an objective, she did not let go. Right or wrong, she was never in doubt. In many respects, these characteristics were well suited to a lawyer who practices criminal law, where the stakes are high, the participants are often unreliable and "street smarts" may be more important than citations to legal treatises. The need for toughness was even greater for a woman lawyer, and Mary Alice met that need with plenty to spare. Her adversaries noted the appropriateness of her initials: M.A.D.

I first met Mary Alice about twenty years after the Coyle case was tried. I was assigned to defend a North Philadelphia bar that was being sued by a patron who had been injured in a late-night brawl. Mary Alice represented a West German social worker who was in the United States on a church-sponsored program. She brought suit against the bar and a hospital to which the youth had been taken for emergency treatment. My colleagues warned me that Mary Alice was very difficult. She was described in terms usually reserved for Russian tank commanders. Most of the "old-timers" had a story or two about their experiences in cases involving Mary Alice. On the other hand, I also knew that Mary Alice was a cousin of my law school classmate Bill Fair, and I had every reason to expect that Bill would have mentioned my name in a favorable context.

Suffice it to say that Mary Alice Duffy lived up to her advance billing. We met in a small courtroom on the third floor of City Hall. It was being used at that time for hearing argument on motions, for calling the trial list and as a waiting room for the lawyers who were involved in the next three cases that were likely to be assigned to trial. (The lawyers in the next seven cases after that were permitted to return to their offices with the stipulation that, upon telephone notice, they would return within thirty minutes with their witnesses, if necessary.)

It was raining outside and Mary Alice was having a "bad hair" day. She was wearing a shapeless tan raincoat and was carrying an oversize Schlessinger briefcase. A solid, large-boned woman, Mary Alice glared steadily at me, much like a linebacker in a football game glares at the offensive linemen on the opposing team. But her voice was friendly and respectful. We were adversaries but we could also be friends.

We were in court that day to argue a discovery motion filed by Mary Alice to compel my client to provide some particular information about the bar. I cannot recall the subject matter of the requested information but we had legitimate ground to oppose the request and had filed a brief in support of our position. Judge Stanley M. Greenberg was on the bench that day. When our case was called, Judge Greenberg looked at the two of us for a moment and then announced, "I have reviewed this motion and the briefs, and I am granting the motion." With an exaggerated sweep of his right hand, he signed the proposed order that Mary Alice had attached to the front of her motion and called out, "Next case!" Recognizing defeat, I said,"Thank you, your Honor," and turned to walk away.

Mary Alice stood her ground. "Your Honor," she said, "I want to call to your attention the following cases that support my position on this motion." She reached out toward the judge, extending a batch of photocopied pages. Judge Greenberg stammered, "But Miss Duffy, I have granted your motion. You won. There is no need to argue." "Your Honor," continued Mary Alice, "it is important that you understand the law on this subject . . ." "Next case!!" called Judge Greenberg with noticeable exasperation. By that time, I had reached the courtroom door and increased my stride down the hallway toward the stairwell.

Eventually, the case was assigned to trial. A telephone call from a clerk in Civil Listings told us to report to Judge Bernard J. Goodheart in his chambers in the One East Penn Square Building across Market Street from Wanamaker's and adjacent to the old City Hall Annex. I knew the judge, having previously tried cases before him. When Mary Alice and the lawyer representing the hospital arrived, we were shown in to the judge's chambers.

The judge greeted the three of us and asked Mary Alice to explain her plaintiff's claim. When she finished describing the fight, the emergency treatment at the hospital and the failure to diagnose a concussion, the judge asked whether the plaintiff had a legitimate claim against the hospital inasmuch as the standard treatment for concussion is discharge and bed rest, exactly what happened in this case. Mary Alice assured the judge that she had researched the issue and that there was a Pennsylvania case report that supported her position.

Judge Goodheart looked directly at me and said, "Mr. St. John, I know exactly what this case is about. When I was an assistant district attorney I tried hundreds of cases involving bars just like the one that you represent, in North Philadelphia and in other neighborhoods just like it." He then described my client's business with amazing accuracy, the absentee owner, the operation by a full-time manager, the African-American neighborhood clientele, most of them under the lawful drinking age, a tough crowd, loud music from a jukebox. He even named some of the artists and the tunes-and the inevitable fights.

Mary Alice's client, a West German and a pacifist, was out of his element in this bar filled with young men who either were drafted or were about to be drafted into the army to serve as cannon fodder in Vietnam. Having accurately stated the facts of the case, the judge turned his attention to Mary Alice Duffy. Before Mary Alice could even open the case book, the judge announced that, due to a conflict in his schedule, he could not handle this case and was returning the file to Judge Greenberg for reassignment.

It was about a week later that I received another call from Civil Listings assigning the case to trial before Judge Joseph P. Braig. This time, we were told to report directly to a courtroom on the ninth floor at Five Penn Center. The court leased two floors of that building for civil courtrooms before the Criminal Justice Center was built. At the courtroom, we were informed that a panel of prospective jurors had been requested and that we should proceed immediately with jury selection. If any problems arose, we were to contact Judge Braig by telephone.

A group of about thirty people soon arrived and were seated in the courtroom according to the numbers they had been assigned by the jury commissioner. It was Mary Alice's prerogative as lawyer for the plaintiff to begin the voir dire, the questioning of the prospective jurors to determine whether they had any views that would affect their ability to serve as impartial jurors. Lawyers are not supposed to argue their cases during voir dire, but everyone does that and some lawyers are so subtle in this technique that it's almost impossible to object while they achieve a tremendous advantage. Mary Alice was about as subtle as a Sherman tank. Three minutes into the voir dire, the hospital's lawyer was on the phone to Judge Braig's chambers, complaining about one of Mary Alice's comments. We were told to report immediately to chambers in the One East Penn Square Building.

I had never been before Judge Braig. He had recently been elected to the bench. We seated ourselves in three chairs in front of Judge Braig's desk. The hospital's lawyer started to describe the circumstances to which he objected at voir dire. "Judge, the problem is that Mrs. Duffy asked the entire panel . . ." That was as far as he got. Mary Alice exploded: "It is MISS Duffy! And my name is Mary Alice!" From that point on, it was downhill.

Rather than try to resolve the legitimacy of the voir dire question, Judge Braig chose to try to settle the case. Following the customary procedure, he asked the hospital lawyer and me to step out of the room while he discussed settlement in confidence with Mary Alice. We stepped out into the secretarial area.

After about five minutes, the door opened and Mary Alice told us that it was our turn to talk to the judge. It was like déjà vu all over again. Judge Braig told us he was not inclined to spend the next week or so in the abrasive atmosphere that his past experience with Mary Alice told him would be the case, a prospect she confirmed in the brief session he had just completed. He told us he would call Mary Alice back into the room and he would inform the three of us that his present schedule would not permit him to sit on this trial. He then did just that and handed us the file, telling us to take it back to Judge Greenberg for reassignment.

On the way back to my office, I did some quick mental calculations. My real client was the insurance company that had issued a general liability insurance policy to the bar. The policy had a maximum coverage of only about $25,000. Although we might prevail at the trial, there was no question that we could lose and the cost of the continuing defense was growing larger every day. Under the circumstances, I recommended that we offer the policy limits of $25,000 and settle the case. The client quickly agreed with my analysis. I called Mary Alice and we settled the claim against the bar for the amount of the policy limits. The plaintiff would proceed with his claim against the hospital only.

About a week or so later, I received a call from Civil Listings stating that the case had been assigned to Judge John J. McDevitt III, and that we should report to his courtroom in Five Penn Center. McDevitt was a "no nonsense" judge. Rumor had it that he had been an insurance defense lawyer, and when he became a judge he set out to avenge the many wrongs that had been inflicted upon him by his former clients in the insurance industry. I had tried other cases before him and I knew he meant business. While the panel of prospective jurors assembled in the courtroom, the lawyers met with Judge McDevitt in the small anteroom behind the bench.

Judge McDevitt was pleased when I told him that the bar had settled with the plaintiff and that the only open claim was against the hospital. He expressed surprise when I asked that my client be dismissed from the case and excused from participating in the trial. He said the normal procedure is for a settling defendant to continue to be in the case but without any potential liability. I had anticipated that reaction and had discussed it in advance with Mary Alice and with the hospital's lawyer. Also, I had a Superior Court case supporting the dismissal of my client. I handed a copy of that case to Judge McDevitt. The judge acknowledged that the case said what I had represented, and he asked the hospital's lawyer whether there was any objection to the bar being dismissed from the lawsuit. The lawyer stood, and as I expected, said he had no objection to the bar being dismissed.

"There is no settlement!" screamed Mary Alice. "We brought this case against both the bar and the hospital, and the trial will be against both of them." I was stunned. The judge and the hospital's lawyer both looked surprised. The judge said we would take a short recess.

I followed Mary Alice out to the hallway. "What's going on?" I said. "We had a settlement and you agreed that the bar would be dismissed," I reminded her. Mary Alice looked at me blankly. She said, "You heard him. He said he wanted the bar to be dismissed. If he is for it, it must be harmful to my client! I could not go along with a settlement under those circumstances." I should have suspected that Mary Alice would practice law according to principles developed by Clausewitz.

Almost in a trance, I walked back into the judge's anteroom. I knew I could not enforce an oral settlement. I kicked my mind into another gear, trying to get ready for voir dire, opening statements and the cross-examination of the plaintiff, to say nothing of how I would explain this development to my client. Vaguely, as if in a dream, I heard Judge McDevitt say, "after looking at my calendar, I cannot accept the assignment of this trial and I am sending this file back to Judge Greenberg for reassignment to another judge." Here we go again.

Over the next few weeks, Mary Alice and I discussed this case on several occasions. We put the settlement back in place and we agreed that the hospital's position would not affect our agreement. Then, the case was assigned to Judge Lawrence Prattis, a judge with a very low-key personality but one who had the unwavering respect of trial lawyers. Judge Prattis said the bar was out of the case and he proceeded with the trial against the hospital alone. Deo Gratias. I later heard that the jury returned a verdict in favor of the hospital for much the same reasons that had been stated by Judge Goodheart when the case was first assigned for trial.

Over the years, I lost track of Mary Alice. Representing the Bell Telephone Company of Pennsylvania, however, I was aware of claims involving telephone listings in the white pages and in the yellow-page directories. At one point, the pro-choice crowd took the position that a pro-life group should not be allowed to list its phone number in the yellow pages under the heading "Abortion Clinics." They claimed that this was fraud. They argued that the listing was intended to mislead people who wanted to arrange for abortions, and that instead of getting advice on how to get an abortion, the "clinic" would try to change the caller's mind about having the abortion in the first instance. I was not involved in that dispute. The telephone company's in-house lawyers handled it.

Mary Alice represented the pro-life organization. She was asked whether she thought people were deceived when they looked under "Abortion Clinics" and were given a pro-life service. The response was typical Mary Alice. "Do you think that persons who call a cancer clinic want instructions on how to get cancer?" The local newspapers picked up on it and, once again, Mary Alice was in the headlines as she had been when defending John Coyle.

Ten years ago, I saw a notice in the newspaper that Sara Duffy had passed away. Then, a year or so later, I was on an elevator in the One East Penn Square Building after a pretrial conference. As the elevator doors opened at the lobby, silhouetted in the doorway was a large-framed woman wearing a tan raincoat and carrying an oversized briefcase. "Mary Alice," I said, "how are you?" She stared straight ahead, looking right through me, and said,"Lousy!" As we walked across the small lobby, the lawyer who had been with me at the pretrial conference turned and said, "Who-or what-was that?" "That, my friend, was Mary Alice Duffy," I replied. There will never be another like her.

Mary Alice Duffy passed away on March 18, 2002.