"It's all I ever wanted to do": A love of the law led Richard LeBlanc to become a public defender. Now, he's being honored for his "zealous advocacy."
They included books by Erle Stanley Gardner, who created Perry Mason, a Los Angeles defense attorney who fought long odds trying to clear his clients from seemingly insurmountable situations.
Mason's exploits became the subject of one of the most beloved and long running crime dramas in television history. LeBlanc's whole family were big fans of the show; Rick especially liked the way it contained realistic interpretations of the law.
"The law was right down the line," said LeBlanc, a Pittsfield native who graduated from Taconic High School in 1971. "It just fascinated me the way the whole thing worked."
Fast forward several years. LeBlanc turned his love for Mason into a love for the law into a career as a public defender — "it's all I ever wanted to do" — where he's often found himself representing clients facing the same situations that his television alter ego was up against. He's represented two of Berkshire County's most notorious defendants, convicted child serial killer Lewis Lent, and convicted school shooter Wayne Lo.
LeBlanc, who has been a member of the Public Defender Division's Berkshire County Office for 35 years, recently received the Edward J. Duggan Award from the state Committee for Public Counseling Services, which is presented annually to the public defender and private attorney in Massachusetts who best represents "zealous advocacy," which the committee considers to be the central principle governing the representations of indigents in the state.
In legal terms, indigents are identified as people who lack the sufficient income to afford a lawyer for their defense in a criminal case. Defendants who fall into that category, receive a court-appointed public defender or other attorney to represent them.
Although CPCS could not confirm it, the organization's general counsel Anthony J. Benedetti believes LeBlanc is the first public defender from Berkshire County, and possibly Western Massachusetts, to receive the Duggan Award, which was first presented in 1988. Late Pittsfield attorney Paul V. Donohue, who founded the Berkshire County bar advocate's office, received the Duggan Award for private council attorney several years ago, LeBlanc said.
"I was actually blown away," said LeBlanc, who was nominated by three of his colleagues at CPCS: Susan Lyman, Jill Sheldon and Ryan Smith. "If you look to see the people who have won that award in the past, there are some absolutely incredible trial attorneys and appellate attorneys on that list — and there's not that many because the award hasn't been given out that long. So to be considered in the same breath with those people is just amazing."
Edward Duggan, who died in 2004, served continuously for 57 years as a member of three separate state committees that were the forerunners of the state Committee for Public Counseling Services, which was founded in 1984. The Duggan Award's recipients are selected by the elected officers and senior staff of CPCS.
"He's been well known in Berkshire County as a great defense attorney-public defender," said CPCS Chief Counsel Anthony J. Benedetti. "He has years of experience that allows him to go in and take really difficult, ugly cases. He's a leader and a mentor in the office to less experienced attorneys and no doubt to less experienced bar advocates as well.
"You've seen the kinds of serious stuff that this guy gets involved in," Benedetti said. "He takes the kinds of cases that are the worst of the worst. To me, a real good public defender is the same as a good private (defense) attorney. I would put our most experienced public defenders against private attorneys any day, and Rick is in that group."
ALL TYPES OF SITUATIONS
LeBlanc, who was attorney in charge of the Berkshire County Public Defender's Division from 1990 to 2000, has represented all kinds of defendants involved in all types of situations. A stickler for preparation — "you need to know your case inside out before you walk into the courtroom because that's somebody else's life in your hands" — LeBlanc has had his share of seemingly improbable victories.
He's earned acquittals for an undocumented client charged with statutory rape who had been held by federal immigration authorities for more than a year; for an out-of-state man charged with carrying a firearm without a license; and for a burglar whose DNA was found on a stolen cash box that was located near the crime scene, according to his nomination letter that was prepared by Lyman and Smith.
"I think it's changed over a period of time," LeBlanc said, when asked what kind of satisfaction he gets from his job.
"(Former Berkshire District Attorney) Tony Ruberto once told me a lot of the people who are prosecuted in Berkshire County are not hardcore criminals; they're sinners. They're people who screwed up. They had a bad day and now they have to pay for it. And I agree with that," he said. "A lot of people who we see are people who have drug issues; they have mental health issues; and they don't have a lot of people who can advocate for them. Yet, they're stuck in the system and it's not going to get better for them unless they have people who can advocate for them. And that's what we do. Not just me. That's what we all do."
He represented Lent at trial after he was charged with attempting to kidnap a young girl in Pittsfield, and was already a suspect in the murder of a young Pittsfield boy, a charge Lent was later convicted of.
"There was a tremendous amount of notoriety about the case, and Rick was subjected to a daily barrage from the press seeking comments," according to LeBlanc's nomination letter. "Not only did Rick maintain his cool about this difficult case, he also succeeded in getting a required finding of not guilty on the single life felony for which the defendant was indicted, armed robbery."
In an old Associated Press photo, LeBlanc is pictured standing next to Lo during his initial arraignment for killing two people and wounding four others at Bard College at Simon's Rock in December 1992. But his role was brief: He represented Lo at his initial District Court arraignment, which occurred the day after the shooting took place, and at one pre-trial conference.
"I was really a bit player," LeBlanc said.
Without naming names, LeBlanc remembers representing a client who was accused of sexually assaulting a minor. The man was acquitted following a jury trial, but died two months later.
"He had told me that he was very ill before we tried the case," LeBlanc said. "That has always stuck out because he was an amazing person; there was a quiet dignity to him. I think he knew he was dying. In one way it would have been very easy to resolve the case, short of a trial, and get it behind him, but he was very fair. He said I'm not going to raise my hand to God and say I did something I didn't do even though that might mean that I'll be incarcerated. That takes a whole bunch of courage that you don't see in many people."
LeBlanc was asked what it's like to represent clients he knows are guilty but that insist on going to trial.
"To be absolutely honest, those are the trials I love the most," he said, "because the way our system is supposed to work, the commonwealth has the burden of proving the element of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt. And if they can't prove those elements, than the person is supposed to be found not guilty. It doesn't mean that the person didn't do it. The commonwealth has to prove to 12 people beyond a reasonable doubt the elements of that offense. And, if they can't prove it, than the person shouldn't be punished for it.
"I enjoy those trials the most because if I got a win that situation than I have made the system work," he said.
LeBlanc's zealous defense of his clients is also respected by those who have opposed him in court.
"I would say that Rick is a tireless defender in the courtroom of his clients," said recently appointed Berkshire District Attorney Paul J. Caccaviello, speaking for his office as a whole. "He puts his heart and soul into his defenses and his clients are well represented by him. I've been across the aisle from him many times. You always leave knowing he's done his best and advocated the best he can for his client."
Erle Stanley Gardner would be proud.
Business Editor Tony Dobrowolski can be reached at email@example.com or 413-496-6224.
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