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Edward Bennett Williams, “Contest Living” Exponent

August 14, 1988 GMT

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Edward Bennett Williams, trial lawyer and owner of the Baltimore Orioles and former president and part owner of the Washington Redskins, was a man who believed in winning - what he called ″contest living.″

Williams enchanted juries, befuddled prosecutors, defended pariahs and befriended the mighty.

Sometimes he so irked his adversaries that he drew out the worst in them. Richard M. Nixon once vowed on tape that ″We are going to fix″ Williams, a lifelong Democrat who privately called Nixon ″snake brains.″

Williams frustrated friends, too. Robert F. Kennedy, then counsel for the Senate rackets committee, was a frequent breakfast companion, but Williams enraged him by his successful defense of Jimmy Hoffa in a 1957 bribery case.

During the trial, Kennedy vowed to ″jump off the Capitol dome″ if Hoffa were acquitted. Williams gleefully replied: ″I’ll buy him a parachute.″

One of his clients was Frank Costello, the mobster who was the model for Mario Puzo’s ″Godfather.″ Costello once said: ″I’ve had 40 lawyers. But Ed’s the champ. Ed’s the champ. It’s like throwing dice. Man throws the six, he can’t pay off. Ed makes the point. Ed makes the point.″

In the early days, he was sneered at by many in the legal establishment for his willingness to defend unsavory characters, but that merely stiffened his resolve. ″The more opprobrium that was attached to the client,″ he said, ″the more I relished the case.″

That didn’t mean he had to like the customer. He treated most with a certain aloofness. ″I have only two things to say to them: ‘Tell me the truth, and understand right now that I am going to have dictatorial power in running this case.’

″They all want me to hold their hands. I’m sorry for them. But I’ve got no business babying them when I ought to be out working for them,″ he said.

By his own account, Williams said Bobby Baker’s tax evasion trial was the only ″major″ case he ever lost.

Baker recalls that Williams went home with him immediately after the guilty verdict and burst into tears. ″He did not cry a silent gentlemanly stream of tears. His thick body shook and jerked almost convulsively as he sobbed. Mucous ran from his nose. I wiped it off, mixed him a stiff drink and tried to comfort him ... he was inconsolable,″ Baker said.


When Jack Kent Cooke bought out his 13 percent share of the Washington Redskins football team, Williams already had acquired baseball’s Orioles in nearby Baltimore.

The team won the 1983 World Series with manager Joe Altobelli, but when it began to slump in 1985, Williams promptly dumped him and lured another coaching legend, Earl Weaver, out of retirement.

″He called me a cement head,″ said Altobelli. Williams said he didn’t remember using that particular term, but ″it was not inconsistent with my thinking on the subject.″

As it turned out, even Weaver couldn’t rejuvenate the Orioles’ pitching, and he retired again after the 1986 season.

A graduate of Holy Cross, Williams enrolled in Georgetown University Law School and, bored by classwork, made a practice of wandering into the U.S. courthouse to watch trials. ″I watched bad lawyers,″ he said. ″I learned a lot from their mistakes.″

Even before he passed the bar, Hogan & Hartson, then the capital’s second- largest law firm, hired him on Georgetown’s recommendation.

Among his clients were several breweries. In those days, empty beer bottles were sometimes improperly washed, and mice, attracted by the smell of yeast, would occasionally climb into them and die. When the bottles were refilled and sold again, they became, to some customers, as valuable as gold.

Williams said he learned one rule of thumb when a beer drinker charged into court, corpus delecti in bottle, bottle in hand, complaining of indigestion. If the jury kept its collective breakfast down, continue to fight; but if just one threw up, a quick out-of-court settlement was advisable.

His competitive urges spilled everywhere. A former colleague, Pierce O’Donnell, once beat Williams at tennis. ″Ed never asked me to play again,″ O’Donnell said.

One year, Williams and his kids showed up at the home of columnist Art Buchwald for their traditional family game of touch football before Thanksgiving dinner. But Williams also brought along an outrageous ringer, a gentleman named Christian Adolph ″Sonny″ Jurgensen, then destined for the Pro Football Hall of Fame for throwing the purest spirals in the history of the game. ″They still lost,″ Buchwald said. ″It was the greatest Thanksgiving the Buchwalds ever had.″

One of Williams’ greatest talents was his skill at cross-examination. ″It is,″ he said, ″the art of putting a bridle on a witness who has been called to do you harm ... you must think of him as a man with a knife in his hand who is out to stab you, and you must feel your way with him as if you were in a dark room together. You must move with him, roll with him. You must never explore or experiment during cross-examination. You must never ask a question if you do not already know the answer.

″Never attack points that are unassailable,″ said Williams. ″And if you hit a telling shot, try not to let the witness know it. Keep quiet and go on. The time to dramatize it to the jury is during your closing argument.″

Nobody closed better than Williams. His calm, accommodating manner during the trial would, at the end, turn to thunder and lightning.

During the Hoffa trial, for example, he tripped up a key government witness over a seemingly inconsequential point, and, true to his own rule, quickly moved on with no show of emotion.

But during the summation, arms and long, wavy hair akimbo, he boomed: ″From this man’s lips, we learn that he lies. From this man’s lips we learn that he deceives. From this man’s lips were learn that he falsifies. What kind of man can lie,″ he said, voice now ebbing, ″while carrying the rosary, the symbol of truth, honesty and beauty.″

Being in the courtroom with Williams, said O’Donnell, ″was somewhat akin to having your breath sucked out by a tornado.″

But Williams didn’t try to convince juries by himself. He was a great believer in the character witness, and produced some spectacular lineups tailored to the makeup of the jury box. For the Connally bribery case, before a mostly black jury, he paraded to the stand one civil rights hero after another to testify to Connally’s integrity.

Then he called Billy Graham.

Q: What is your profession?

A: I teach the gospel of Jesus Christ across the face of the earth.

Voice from the jury: ″Amen 3/8″

Williams, wry grin on his face, said later: ″I thought that that was a good sign.″

″I try to be guided by the ethics I was taught by the Jesuits,″ said Williams. ″A trial is like a war.″