Sunday, September 16, 2012

Noted attorneys' deaths leave void in legal circles

Kirk Kirkconnell and Chandler Muller have been called icons. Lawyers' lawyers. Their words were gold, and you could take what they said to the bank.

They didn't advertise on billboards, hold news conferences or parade their clients on TV.

And yet, the powerful legal duo brought in celebrities, Orlando's wealthiest and judges as clients.

Kirkconnell and Muller worked in Central Florida for decades, spending 20 years of their legal careers in practice together in Winter Park.

The attorneys died just weeks apart - both from cancer, and now Central Florida's legal community is facing a void that is going to be tough to fill.

Muller, who died Aug. 27, was known for his creativity. Kirkconnell, who died Sept. 7, was known for his fierceness. Both were known for their integrity and professionalism.

"They understood - and made sure everyone around them understood - that defending an accused citizen was a high and noble calling," said attorney Mike Snure, who practiced with Kirkconnell and Muller.

"It takes a strong individual to stand between the accused citizen and the powerful machine that is the government," Snure said.

Kirkconnell, 69, and Muller, 68, handled complex criminal cases in state and federal court, defending clients accused of murder, sex offenses and white-collar crimes.

"They were very, very unique. They were both, in my opinion, forces of nature," said attorney Warren Lindsey, who also practiced with Kirkconnell and Muller.

"When either Chan or Kirk came into a courtroom or came into a conference room, people listened. They commanded respect and attention by their mere presence."

Kirkconnell represented Circuit Court Judge Alan Apte, who was indicted in 2005 in an election-fraud case but was later cleared.

Kirkconnell successfully defended an Edgewater High School soccer coach charged with sexually molesting a teenage girl on campus.

And Kirkconnell convinced a Seminole County jury that a man who killed his cocaine dealer and the man's girlfriend in a hotel-room fight had acted in self-defense.

Muller did a lot of pro bono work, including spending 15 years working to get an Orange County man off death row and instead serve a life sentence.

In the 1980s, Muller was the first lawyer in Florida to use the battered-spouse-syndrome defense, Lindsey said.

In 2002, he convinced a jury that a woman who claimed her psychiatrist manipulated her and had sex with one of her multiple personalities had framed him by retrieving his DNA from his trash.

And Muller won an acquittal for a man accused of animal cruelty when he shot two Siberian huskies in a cow pasture, a case that attracted attention after a video of the incident appeared on YouTube.

Though some of their cases garnered media attention - Kirkconnell represented Isleworth millionaire James Robert "Bob" Ward in his high-profile second-degree-murder case last year - it wasn't something either attorney sought.

They understood, Snure said, that clients "are not commodities to be paraded around in the press, usually only to the benefit of the lawyer."

"Most of our clients wanted and got anonymity," Snure said. "Flying under the legal radar is a skill that must be honed and practiced. With all the opportunities for media exposure, avoiding it requires a conscious effort. Kirk and Chan understood that reality."

Susan Kirkconnell said her husband seldom talked about work and his cases at home.

"Kirk had great faith in our justice system," she said. "His job was to level the playing field and to make sure everybody was treated fairly."

But she didn't realize the impact her husband had on the legal community until his death, when she started receiving emails and messages from former colleagues and associates.

"Everybody has said how much they respected him and how much they valued his advice," she said. "It is heartwarming and is very humbling."

Both Kirk Kirkconnell and Chandler Muller mentored younger lawyers and helped attorneys who were starting their own practices.

Orange County Circuit Court Judge Heather Higbee said other lawyers should look to Kirkconnell and Muller in terms of how they want to run their practice, represent their clients and make their arguments in court.

"They never compromised their character, ever," she said. "We would all be honoring them in trying to carry on with those principles."

Even prosecutors have the utmost respect for Kirkconnell and Muller.

Criminal-defense attorney Cynthia Hawkins, who spent more than 20 years as a federal prosecutor in Orlando before going into private practice, said there were no cheap tricks when handling a case with Kirkconnell or Muller.

Both attorneys practiced with an old-school collegiality. They kept their word. They didn't play games.

Kirkconnell and Muller were both skilled negotiators and among the very best practitioners in federal court, Hawkins said.

"As a prosecutor, you were happy to have them on the other side, because you knew the case would be handled in an ethical way," she said.

By Rene Stutzman,, 407-420-5735

Source: The Orlando Sentinel

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