STAMFORD — On any day when when prosecutors gather in the large ground-level courtroom to call the most serious cases in the Stamford-Norwalk Judicial District — murders, sex assaults, shootings, arson, big-time thefts — Howard Ehring sits, waiting for clients who, more often than not, are brought to him in shackles.
As his defendants are guided to his side by judicial marshals, Ehring, 65, states his name for the record, though no introduction is necessary, everybody knows him there, and begins, armed with a knowledge of the law that comes with years of being up to his elbows in cases, and a conviction that everyone is entitled to a vigorous and zealous defense.
For 33 years the public defender has been toiling in the Stamford courthouse, representing those on the edge of society, whose legal troubles are so serious, the state’s case against them so pat, few private attorneys would go near them, even if they had money, which they do not.
Take the case of Rashad Sellers, whom Ehring was assigned to defend recently on top of the 40 cases or so he already was juggling. Sellers was arrested last month for the murder of Stephon Walthrust, who was shot in his car on Garden Street late at night on March 30. The evidence against him — video of a man authorities say is Sellers walking from camera to camera around the block to where Walthrust was shot, and more video him driving off moments later — appears damning.
This isn’t the only case of Ehring’s in which cameras have played an eyewitness role, but the defender regards their ever-increasing presence with the same positive nature for which he’s known.
“You cannot walk a block or two in some neighborhoods without appearing on video, for either city, commercial or homeowner cameras,” Ehring said with a shrug.
Faced with some pretty daunting odds, often-egregious fact patterns of cases he is assigned, and defendants with extensive criminal histories, Ehring at times counsels clients to take responsibility and plead guilty to their charges, rather than going to trial and facing the maximum penalty if they lose.
On Wednesday, Ehring pleaded a former city man out on an armed robbery charge and got him six years in jail, better than the 25 years he was facing if he took the case to trial. The man, Jihad Amir, 48, left his wallet in the back of a cab after holding up the cabbie with a gun and taking $80 from the unarmed driver.
Ehring’s boss, Supervisory Public Defender Barry Butler, said no one has done more criminal cases in the Stamford-Norwalk Judicial District than Ehring.
“He has handled some of the most difficult and complicated cases that we have ever seen in the state of Connecticut. And Howard always thinks of the client first, second and last,” Butler said. “And I would call him, without referring to his age, I would suggest that Howard has become one of the deans of the Fairfield County bar.”
In one of his toughest cases over the past 10 years, Ehring won an acquittal for Amos Brown Jr., a Norwalk teen charged with the 2008 stabbing death of Tykwan Hunt, an act to which Brown had admitted.
A year later when the case came to trial, Ehring told the jury the incident was more complex than it might have first appeared. Witnesses during trial testified that Hunt on the night he was killed had stabbed one of Brown’s friends and pulled a gun one someone else. A semiautomatic .380 pistol fell out of Hunt’s underwear when doctors performed his autopsy. Brown testified that Hunt pulled a gun on him and he stabbed him in self defense.
Acquitted of the murder charge, Brown returned to Norwalk where he was shot and killed two years later — evidence of the harsh reality in which many of Ehring’s clients live.
Amos Brown, Sr. said he could not thank Ehring enough for what he did for his son.
“He was a very nice public defender and did a really great job, an excellent job and you could ask for no better person to defend my son,” Brown said.
Judge Gary White, who presided over the case, said in an interview last week that Ehring’s work was essential to bringing the jury around to make the right decision in the trial. Echoing Brown’s words, White said, “He did a fantastic job in that case.”
Ehring says he was always drawn to the underdog, possibly as a result of sidling up to his Uncle Walter who didn’t have a television of his own and came to Howard’s house every week in the small town of Morris, New York to watch “Perry Mason.”
“From a young age I was always impressed with attorneys and particularly criminal defense attorneys,” Ehring said.
But when his father died when he was 22, Ehring shoved his dreams of becoming an attorney aside and got onto a teaching track, eventually earning a doctorate in education. While going to school he worked for Catholic Charities helping high school drop outs and those at risk, and says he honed his negotiating skills by “groveling” before Erie County judges, trying to convince them to allow him to tutor the students rather then sending them to reform school.
Eventually he returned to law. And it was in law school at the University of Bridgeport that Ehring decided to become a public defender. He began volunteering at public defenders’ offices in Bridgeport and Norwalk, where a young Gary White was on staff.
White was the first in a group of mentors he picked up over the years. Others have included James Ginocchio, who also went on to become a judge, his current boss Butler and former boss Nancy Kekac, all of whom helped him understand the law and hone his trial skills.
Possibly the best legal advice he ever got was from current Supervisory Assistant State’s Attorney Stephen Weiss, who told him after a particularly nasty discussion with another prosecutor to never take anything personally.
“And with that guideline, that’s how I got by the next 33 years,” Ehring said with a smile.
Senior Assistant State’s Attorney Maureen Ornousky, who works with Weiss in the Stamford State’s Attorneys Office, said she remembers sitting next to Ehring in her first year of law school in Bridgeport.
“I have a lot of respect for Howard. He gets assigned the most difficult cases and a lot of times when you have the most difficult clients with extensive criminal backgrounds, you have the most difficult outcomes to deal with,” Ornousky said.
Still, she said, Ehring never “freaks out.”
“Part of why he is successful is everyone really respects him and likes him and his personality is the type that if he goes to bat for a client he really believes in what he is saying,” Ornousky said. “He has seen the worst of the worst cases and when he goes to bat for a client everyone in the prosecutors office takes into consideration that Howard is the person who is saying it.”
Among his accomplishments, Ehring has raised the level of defense for the mentally handicapped in Stamford. He has won not guilty by reason of insanity verdicts for a number of defendants, including Timothy Anderson, who killed his mother in Stamford in 2015, and Aaron Ramsey, who killed his father in Wilton in 2012.
Judge Richard Comerford,who has presided over some of those cases, said Ehring took the time to develop relationships with the psychiatric community, which gave him an understanding of the unique issues involved.
“I have always been impressed with him in those type of cases,” Comerford said last week. “He deals with some very serious matters and some very difficult clients and has a wonderful sense of human nature and the limits thereof. He always tries to do the right thing by people and most particularly his clients.”
The years in Stamford have come with some heartache for Ehring. In 2014 his wife Colleen, mother of his two sons, was diagnosed with to brain cancer. Two years later she died. “It was a very difficult time for me and my two boys,” he said.
Last November his oldest son Conor was a passenger in a car that got into a serious accident in Shippan. He was nearly killed. “He’s making a comeback. He’s home and looking forward to school,” Ehring said.
Decades after trying his first case, Ehring said his career has lived up to his youthful expectations, except that he only expected to be in Stamford for three, maybe four years before heading back to upstate New York.
But he said it got to the point that the people he was working with became like family members, and he enjoyed the intensity of working in a city courtroom.
“I just love being in the courtroom every day. Whether it is sitting there while your ulcers burn waiting for a jury to come back with a verdict on a murder case, or being in front of a judge arguing for a rehabilitation application, there is an adrenaline rush to being in a courtroom,” Ehring said. “For me and most of my co-workers, we aren’t the type of people to sit in an office all day long waiting for someone to come through the door.”