Here’s Something: Lilley was larger than life

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Dan Lilley, the Portland-based criminal defense attorney who died last week, had a big personality and was passionate about the law. He excelled in his job because of his indomitable spirit and will be missed by those who admired him.

It’s a shame Lilley will no longer take to the floor of a courtroom as if it were his private domain, trying the state’s most intriguing cases and winning cases for clients whose guilty verdict seemed assured. While he didn’t win all his cases, he won enough to make him the area’s go-to lawyer for those in serious trouble.

He visibly relished his role as the underdog’s defender, but what made Lilley truly great was that he believed all defendants, even those whom the public had already condemned as guilty, deserved the best defense the justice system could muster.

As a reporter who witnessed some of Lilley’s work in the courtroom, I admired his style. He was larger than life. If you wanted an example of how to be a criminal defense attorney, with the resilient soul and force of personality that job requires, Lilley was the archetype.

He also reminded me of the main character in “Rumpole of the Bailey,” a British drama/comedy that ran from the late 1970s to early 1990s. The series featured a rotund curmudgeon named Horace Rumpole, played by Leo McKern, who was quick of wit and had a big heart for people and a love of the law. The real-life Lilley was the fictional Rumpole’s equal in all regards.

I interviewed Lilley many times when he defended two of the Lakes Region’s more high-profile cases. In 2010, he represented both Linda Dolloff, the Standish woman who was found guilty of trying to kill her husband with a softball bat, and Kaile Warren, the Windham man who the state claimed defrauded investors of his Rent-a-Husband handyman company.

Lilley couldn’t save Dolloff, who is still serving a 16-year sentence, but flipped the tables for Warren, who avoided jail time on the fraud charges and then counter-sued two prominent Portland law firms that helped Warren solicit investments. It’s a long story, but all you need to know about Lilley is that he turned around Warren’s bleak prospects and then had the gumption to sue some of his main competition in the legal profession. That’s hubris.

While his legal prowess helped build his name, Lilley was more than a winner. I was never sure if he truly believed his clients were innocent, but he sure acted that way, as any good attorney should. Criminal-defense lawyers are often reviled by the public, almost as much as their clients, just for doing their job. I’m not sure how the general public felt about Lilley, but, like Rumpole, I thought he perfectly performed his role in making sure justice was served.

After I got to know Lilley a little bit, I told him he reminded me of Rumpole. I remember the conversation because I was worried Lilley might think I merely thought he resembled Rumpole in appearance. But once I told him Rumpole is a sort of hero in my family – because he doggedly sought the truth and believed everyone deserved a robust defense, no matter what they did – Lilley laughed, said he was also a Rumpole fan and that he greatly appreciated the comparison.

Rumpole was brusque with just about everybody, but behind that tough veneer was a compassionate deep-thinker. Rumpole believed that a defense attorney should put his all into fighting for their clients, no matter how guilty they may appear. Leave no stone unturned. Pursue all angles. Make sure the system doesn’t fail the accused. Make sure the police did their job properly.

Lilley was like that, too.

Not everyone appreciates the role of a defense attorney. When someone like O.J. Simpson gets off, we blame lawyers for manipulating the system. But someone has to defend the accused. Even when the public is sure the defendant is guilty, as in O.J.’s case, the system needs attorneys to do their best for their client. We think they do it for the money and fame, but many do it out of obligation. They realize that our justice system requires that everyone, even a guilty-as-sin defendant, deserves an impartial judge, jury and strong defense.

One of the pleasures of being a reporter is the relationship you develop with sources you repeatedly interview through the years. If you’re in the job long enough, you develop friendly relationships with some of those sources. And if you’re really lucky, you get to know characters like Dan Lilley along the way.

John Balentine, a former managing editor for Sun Media Group, lives in Windham.