Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: Bill Laswell did his best in defending society’s worst

It was about the Constitution.

That's how Bill Laswell explained it when reporters asked how he could defend such a bloody lot. There wasn't another lawyer in Broward County assigned so many murderous defendants of such repugnant notoriety. It was about their constitutional right to a fair trial, he said. Even them.

He defended a mother killer, father killer, cop killer, preacher killer, wife killer, child killer, sex killer. Police dubbed one of his clients the “Mad Dog Killer.”

They were loathed. They were bizarre. They were often so crazy that they were impervious to legal advice. Two of his clients demanded their own executions. Their courtroom demeanor was sometimes a greater challenge than anything conjured up by the prosecution.

He did it for government wages. Laz, who died of cancer last week, anchored the capital crimes team for the Broward Public Defender’s Office before retiring in 2005 and was known for providing clients as savvy a legal defense as there could be had in Broward County.

Not that they were all that appreciative. Crazy Eddie Gryczan, who had killed his mother after getting out of a mental hospital, fired Laswell so he could argue for his own execution.

Howard Steven Ault, killer of two little girls, ignored Laswell’s advice to keep quiet and kept calling reporters from jail with detailed confessions.

Laswell tried to keep Tyrus McKoy off the witness stand. But Tyrus, who had confessed to police on tape that he killed a florist with a claw hammer, testified anyway, cleverly raising his voice to a falsetto so jurors wouldn’t recognize that it was his voice on the incriminating recording.

Steven Kennedy, who beheaded his girlfriend and carried her head around in a plastic bag, briefly fired Laswell mid-trial. Serial killer Lucious Boyd constantly overruled his lawyer and then complained, after his conviction, that Laswell had “railroaded” him.

Laswell’s triumph was keeping muddled defendants like McKoy off death row. Or saving the infamous Oogaloo from the executioner. Oogaloo, street name for William Patrick Wilson, burglarized a church and beat the pastor to death. But he was nearly deaf, spoke in a guttural gibberish and was so far removed from reality that Laswell was able to convince famously tough Circuit Judge Dan Futch “that it just would have been immoral to have him executed.”

Public defender clients had no money and Laswell’s often had no sense. Yet, unwittingly they had gotten themselves a defense lawyer with more skill, more imagination and considerably more charm than those hired by wealthy defendants who mortgaged waterfront mansions to pay attorney fees. The Broward Courthouse became the rare address where the poor got a better deal than the rich.

He did his thankless job well. Among his murder defendants only the very deserving Lucious Boyd went to death row. And he did it with that folksy Indiana charm of his and — amid so much human ruin — with a legendary sense of humor.

He’d smile and explain that it was about the Constitution — about defending the Constitution.