Lawyer Earl Gray leaves some opponents feeling black and blue.

January 1, 2006

By David Schaffer. Start Tribune.

Earl Gray is a fist-pounding defense attorney who often tries to make police and prosecutors look like bad guys in criminal trials.

This time, though, the tables were turned.

Gray had been hired as a special prosecutor on a criminal case, and another defense attorney sternly told jurors that Gray hadn’t done his homework. “I’m not on trial here,” Gray objected.

It was the kind of jab that Gray has often thrown at government lawyers, and it irked him. Gray and the government lost the case.

Now Gray is back in his usual role as a defense attorney, representing Minnesota Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper, who was charged last month with lewd conduct, a misdemeanor, along with three other players. To nobody’s surprise, Gray immediately attacked the government investigation.

Known for handling high-profile cases, the 61-year-old St. Paul crminal defense attorney has a reputation as a street fighter in the courtroom, with aggressive, even abrasive legal tactics that can leave prosecutors bruised and bitter.

One well-known Twin Cities attorney compared Gray to the fictional Rocky Balboa in the first film in the “Rocky” series. “The scene where Rocky is throwing roundhouse punches at a hanging slab of beef- that is a fair characterization of Earl’s courtroom styles,” said lawyer Bill Mauzy.

In the Vikings case, the players face charges of lewd and indecent conduct during a party that allegedly featured scantily clad and naked women offering sex and lap dances on two Lake Minnetonka cruise boats in October. Culpepper accused of getting a lap dance, retained Gray to defend him.

The first court hearing is scheduled for this week. But Gray already is n the offensive. He said last month that detectives knew a crew member also gta lap dance during the party – but he wasn’t charged.

Shift the blame, win the case

Gray often has defended clients by shifting blame to the government. He has won many acquittals, they include eight cases – mostly involving illegal drugs – in which he alleged the government entrapped his clients.

The entrapment defense won’t fly in the Vikings boat case. Yet, by attacking the motives of the Hennepin County sheriff’s detectives, Gray is using the same tactic: make the government look like the bad guy.

“He will be challenging the investigation leading up to the charging of Culpepper … focusing on why are they going after the defendant,” said Mauzy, who has been both an ally and opponent of Gray in court.

For now, Gray won’t say much more about defending Culpepper, except that his dfense will be aggressive.

Gray already seems back in his element after his recent unsuccessful stint as a prosecutor. “I like representing the person rather than representing the government,” said Gray, who served as an assistant US attorney early in his 34-year legal career. “Otherwise there is not that much difference.”

Growing up in St. Paul

Gray grew up in St. Paul, a though kid taught to hit a punching bag in his basement.

His parents worked at the now defunct Gannon’s Restaurant, as St. Paul supper club; his late father was a cook and his mother was a waitress. Gray was a linebacker at Monroe High School and won a football scholarship to Gustavus Adolphus Colleg in St. Peter, Minn.

He worked for a year as a public defender when fresh out of William Mitchell College of Law, then spent two years as a federal prosecutor before switching to private practice. He has mostly done criminal defense work since 1973.

He gained fame for his successful defense of Robert Bentz, who with his wife was accused in 1984 of participating in a child sex ring in Scott County. The case was based on children’s statements. Gray grilled the kinds in court to prove they’d been brainwashed.

After the Bentzes were acquitted, the sex-ring case fell apart. An investigating commission found that the prosecutor hid evidence that the kids had told police bizarre stories of murders and mutilations that cast doubt on their testimony.

A string of high-profile clients.

Since then Gray has defended a city council member who wrote bad checks, a judge accused of misconduct, police officers who got into trouble and a University of Minnesota football player accused of rape.

Gray admits that 2005 has been a tough year. He said he won acquittals in two rape cases, but other trials have not gone as well, including his high-profile prosecution of former state Repubican Party chairman Ron Eibensteiner. Gray was hired for the case by Mower County Attorney Patrick Flanagan, who filed the charges. He said his small office needed help.

In November, a jury in Rochester found Eibensteiner not guilty of arranging illegal corporate campaign contributions. It was the case in which Gray found himself portrayed as the government bad guy. Yet it was not a bad payday. Gray stands to collect $216,000 in fees, which are being paid from an earlier $1 million settlement by an insurance company implicated in the case.

Gray’s courtroom style can be highly animated. He points at prosecutors, slams is fists and waves his arms. In his closing statements, he sometimes wanders from the podium.

“He aggressively attacks police and prosecutors for perceived mistakes in a criminal investigation,” said Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom, who is not involved in the boat party case. “He is very good at creating smokescreens out of nothing.”

Fred Karasov, an assistant Hennepin County attorney who has successfully tried cases against Gray, said he “can be intimidating, aggressive, some would call him abrasive.”

Yet that is Earl Gray. “When they teach you trial skills, they teach you to be yourself,” Karasov said. “I can’t say that Earl’s style is a negative for him. He is a very successful lawyer.”

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