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O.C. Lawyer Creates Own Order in Court : Profile: Jack Earley's methods are different, but colleagues say he knows what matters--and works.


In the middle of a hushed courtroom, Irvine attorney Jack Earley held up a picture of what appeared to be the All-American family: A beaming father and mother with their two young daughters and two young sons.

With the jury looking on attentively, Earley suddenly raised the framed photograph above his head and slammed it on the lectern, shattering the glass and drawing gasps and looks of horror from spectators and even the judge.

"This is the family that Dan Broderick destroyed," Earley exclaimed, failing to mention that medical malpractice lawyer Daniel T. Broderick III was the dead victim, while Betty, his ex-wife, was the one on trial for first-degree murder in a case that made Court TV a staple of the nation's cable companies.

All in a day's work for Earley, 46, who is one of the top criminal defense attorneys in Orange County, his home for 16 years. He also has a long-running track record in Los Angeles, Riverside and San Diego, where onetime La Jolla socialite Betty Broderick was tried twice for fatally shooting her former husband and his new wife as they lay in bed.

Earley's clients have included not only Broderick--convicted of second-degree murder in a retrial after a hung jury the first time--but also civil plaintiff Kim Springer, the Dana Point postal worker who police say was stalked by accused killer Mark Richard Hilbun; Janet Greene, a former Teacher of the Year in Fullerton accused of murdering her lesbian lover; and Linda Ricchio, San Diego's "fatal attraction" killer who slew her ex-boyfriend but eluded the death penalty.

In 48 homicide cases in a career spanning two decades, most of Earley's clients have been women, which is how he prefers it.

"If someone gave me a test and didn't know my gender beforehand, it would probably come up 'feminist,' " said Earley, who lives in Laguna Beach with his wife, Gail, a Native American with a Cherokee bloodline, and sons Bryan, 10, and Kyle, 8.

For whatever reason, colleagues say Earley works well with women, whether they are paying him to represent them or listening from the jury box.

"He has an extraordinarily fine-tuned sense for what matters in a case," said Elisabeth Semel, past president of California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, the state's criminal defense bar. "He always sees what's important, what the jury's going to care about. He's not the most cerebral, intellectual kind of lawyer, but has a way of speaking that helps jurors really understand. He's also very persuasive."

Earley's friends and even his adversaries marvel at his unorthodox style, which comes across as a curious mix of Mr. Magoo and Peter Falk's Columbo. However unconventional, it seems to work, especially with juries, who appear to share an Everyman's rapport with Earley, who grew up a transient.

He moved with his Jewish mother and Irish Catholic father from Virginia, where he was born, to Connecticut to Arizona, then back to Connecticut and back to Arizona, where he attended three high schools before graduating in California.

As a boy, he dreamed of being a writer, never a lawyer. The fetish common to both crafts: He was always drawn to eccentrics.

A graduate of Cal State Long Beach, Earley obtained a degree from Loyola Law School more out of need for something to do for three years, he said, than to pursue a lifetime of arguing cases in a courtroom.

"At job interviews back then, everyone was wearing white shirts, skinny ties and black shoes, while I had long hair and wasn't about to do that ," said Earley, who today favors conservatively tailored suits, loafers, button-down collars and print ties.

Semel said that Earley, while defending numerous clients who could have received the death penalty, has managed to keep them all off Death Row, including the first person tried for capital murder after California reopened the door to the gas chamber in 1977.

It wasn't long before then that Earley's career got its start. While he was visiting friends in Riverside, a drunk driver careened into his car, rolling it over three times and putting him in the hospital.

Laid up with no idea of what the future held in store--he had a law degree but only a vague idea of the path he wanted to follow--he took a friend's suggestion that he work with the public defender.

Since then, he has been a full-time lawyer without interruption, one whose cases are nothing if not compelling:

* The Broderick trials brought about three books and two made-for-television movies, in addition to gavel-to-gavel coverage on Court TV.

* In a trial scheduled for Sept. 20 in West Covina, Earley is representing Janet Greene, 51, who Glendora police say killed her former lover, Loretta (Ret) Coller, 62, and wounded the woman Greene considered her rival in a love triangle, Martha Pereida, 49.

Coller and Greene once taught together at Sunny Hills High School in Fullerton, where Greene was Teacher of the Year in 1988.

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