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Tribute to Russel: rival, friend

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I arrived in Colorado Springs during the summer of 1968, fresh out of Notre Dame Law School. Bob Russel was in his first term as district attorney. I was destined to spend much of the next 20 years as a criminal defense lawyer, and Russel went on to serve five terms until leaving office.

In short, we spent much of our professional lives in opposite corners of the courtroom.

Russel, who died Jan. 25 at the age of 82, was a colorful character — a hard-living, hard-drinking trial lawyer with all kinds of rough edges. In a tough conservative town, he was a tough conservative DA, never afraid of a legal fight.

By all objective measures, we should have been bitter enemies. We often battled against each other for high stakes; in some cases, my client faced life in prison or the death penalty.

He was a conservative Republican; I have always been a liberal Democrat. He believed in the death penalty; I believed it was discriminatory, wrong and ineffective.

But despite the odds, we were lifelong friends. There was tremendous pressure on both of us to win. We fought hard. Sometimes our tempers flared, and at times it even got a little dirty. But in the middle of the toughest cases, we still could manage a laugh. And when the case was over, we could raise a glass and congratulate each other on a hard-fought battle.

He was a tough trial lawyer, but that was not what made him a great DA. Tough as he was, he tried hard to figure out who was a mess-up deserving of a second chance and who was a real criminal deserving prison time. Because he was something of a rogue himself, he instinctively knew the difference.

Here are a few examples:

The pre-med student. Russel had a firm rule that all drug dealers had to take a felony and go to prison. But when a pre-med student on spring break bought two ounces of marijuana and tried to recoup his expenses by selling one ounce to an undercover agent, Russel agreed to dismiss the charges, saying, "This is a good kid. He could be a good doctor. I'm not going to close the door on him."

• The scientist. A young, geeky scientist working for a local company was jilted by his first love. After a hard night of drinking, he kicked in her door. Russel's deputy insisted on a burglary conviction that would have destroyed the man's career. Russel dismissed the charges, saying, "This guy was drunk, jealous and in love. He's not a criminal, and I won't treat him like a criminal."

• The I-25 blockade. A college kid put up a barricade on Interstate 25 as a stupid joke. This caused a traffic death when a driver panicked and rolled her car. The family demanded prison. Russel agreed to a misdemeanor and county jail time.

• The defense lawyer. I served as state public defender from 1978 to 1982. One of my local defenders went to a crime scene after it had been cleared by the police and took possession of evidence without reporting it to the police or the court. The police pushed hard for a charge of tampering with evidence. Russel saw it for what it was: a ham-fisted effort to preserve evidence favorable to the defendant. The investigating detective called Russel a "coward." And the last time I saw that guy, Russel was chasing him down the hallway like an angry pit bull.

The best thing about Bob Russel is that he tried hard to do justice and wasn't afraid to give someone a break.

Yes, it is true that many of those plea bargains were worked out on a bar napkin in the middle of the day, but I've worked with a lot of district attorneys in my professional life, and Russel handed out more justice than any of them.

I'm going to miss Bob Russel. And I miss the days when lawyers could handle tough cases against each other, fight hard in the courtroom, but still work things out ... and in the end be lifelong friends.

Greg Walta, a longtime Colorado Springs attorney, also serves as a board member of the Independent.

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