As Steve Mank was searching online for funeral details for fellow criminal defense attorney Richard Ney last week, he didn’t find any. But he did discover numerous accounts of what Ney accomplished in a storied legal career.
“It’s amazing when you Google his name what you see,” Mank said. “He’s involved in all these cases that everybody heard (of).”
Ney, who died of pancreatic cancer Nov. 15, had a number of firsts, such as starting the Sedgwick County Public Defender’s Office.
He was the first in Kansas to successfully introduce testimony given under hypnosis while winning an acquittal for Bill Butterworth, who was charged with killing three people in a 1987 murder case that captured the attention of Wichitans for weeks.
His office also was the first to successfully use the battered-woman defense in Sedgwick County. Several juries acquitted several women who killed boyfriends or spouses who had abused them.
Ney “really deserves recognition as a lion of the national criminal defense bar,” said criminal defense attorney Dan Monnat.
He noted that Ney “was one of the few lawyers in the U.S. credentialed to handle federal death penalty cases.”
With a degree from the Missouri School of Journalism, Ney went to law school only to become a better journalist, according to an interview he did with the Kansas State Board of Indigents’ Defense Services. He graduated from Boston University School of Law and worked as an investigative reporter and editor before moving on to work in public defender’s offices in Illinois and Vermont.
He came to Wichita in 1984 to start one in Sedgwick County. Ney called it the Wild West for all its opportunity, though the office initially was not popular in the legal community since a lot of lawyers were used to getting those appointments and the pay that came with them.
He quickly got a reputation for fiercely defending his clients.
“You always knew you had to be prepared when you tried a case against Richard because he would be,” said District Attorney Marc Bennett. “He believed in the job he was doing. He was never phoning it in.”
That’s also what Ney taught a lot of young lawyers when they started out in the public defender’s office.
“There were just a whole bunch of really good lawyers that Rich trained,” said Steve Gradert, who was one of them. “Rich was demanding.”
No matter how heinous the crime someone was accused of, Gradert said, “He also wanted us to treat the client with . . . dignity and respect.”
And promptness, even if that person was incarcerated, he said.
“Nothing was to be treated casually,” said Carol Bacon, who worked for Ney as a young lawyer and went on to become a Sedgwick County District Court judge.
“Richard taught me discipline. Halfway wasn’t good enough. Getting by wasn’t good enough.”
Bacon said some people might look at a person accused of something horrific and say, “How can you represent this man?”
According to Ney, she said, “Well, how could you not?”
Brad Sylvester, chief public defender at the Sedgwick County Conflicts Office, worked for and with Ney through the years — they collaborated for one trial that he said established case law for how to handle minors in court — and became friends. He said it was Ney’s level of caring that set him apart.
“It was always like he was on a mission his whole life to represent people who could not afford it. He was just rabid about it,” Sylvester said. “He had a . . . tenacity for just doing everything he could for people.”
Though friends said Ney could be fun when not working — he especially loved traveling to see operas — Ney always seemed to be working. “It was just because in his mind he was just working all the time,” Monnat said.
Ney had high expectations of his team, too.
When Sylvester worked for Ney in the public defender’s office around 1990, he would take daily breaks to play chess in order to decompress from the stressful job. Ney would walk by Sylvester’s door and catch him.
“He’d go, ‘Hrmmph.’”
In the courtroom, Ney could be intimidating — to other lawyers and even to police and detectives. “He was kind of like a big, burly guy,” Sylvester said. “He was always a gruff guy, and people would be just scared of him.”
Bennett said Ney could be aggressive.
“He knew the law well. He knew how to argue it. . . . He had a big, booming voice. He was no wallflower, I’ll say that.”
Sylvester said as a fellow lawyer, it could be irritating to see how quickly Ney could think through something that was said in court and make a formal objection.
“Richard was the most amazing guy to give objections I’ve ever seen.”
He said it wasn’t simply what Ney would say but how he said it, such as his closing argument in one battered-woman’s syndrome case.
“It was the pauses that made it so impressive.”
Gradert said some prosecutors so loathed going up against Ney that they’d try to figure out potential conflicts of interest to get another lawyer assigned to a case.
As stern as Ney could be in court, Sylvester said he was like a marshmallow in “the tenderness he would exude with his children.” Ney and his wife, Judith, had six children.
For a time, Ney left Wichita to work in the federal public defender’s office in Hawaii.
By then, Gradert was working in the federal system, and someone called him to ask about hiring Ney. The person worried he might be a prima donna, only taking high-profile cases.
“He took them because he was the most skilled and qualified person in our office to do the job,” Gradert said. “Those kinds of cases were pretty high pressure.”
Monnat said he always admired Ney.
He said he remembers that Ney took vacation from his federal job to return to Wichita and help win freedom for Lisa Dunn after she spent eight years in prison for a crime spree that Ney contended her boyfriend forced her to be part of.
“I thought it was a great, great, honorable move by a criminal defense lawyer, way beyond the call of duty,” Monnat said.
Per Ney’s wishes, there will not be a service for him. However, his fellow attorneys have been memorializing him in their remembrances of his career, mentorships and friendships.
“The fact that that vital of a person is no longer with us is just sad,” Monnat said.
It’s also a disappointment for anyone who still might have needed his help.
As Mank said, “If I was in trouble, I would want somebody like Richard Ney to represent me.”