The defender


Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series on prominent Oklahoma County legal figures. Former Oklahoma County District Attorney Bob Macy was profiled last week.

For more than three decades, Oklahoma native Garvin Isaacs has spun epic story lines throughout Oklahoma and the West — stories that shockingly cast alleged murderers as convenient fall guys or sometimes even heroic figures. He portrayed an alleged prison riot ringleader as an innocent man and a deadly, barroom brawler as a victim of self-defense.

Many of his characters are shady figures whose life choices have placed them in a realm somewhere between this world and the next. Trouble shadowed their lives and ultimately put them at odds with proper society. Yet each has shared one common thread: Isaacs’ unyielding belief in their innocence.

He tells his tales in the courtroom, where the defense trial lawyer is a master storyteller. He crafts accounts from the facts and evidence he meticulously gathers, and presents them, warts and all, for the jury to consider.

A CALLING

“I’ve seen video clips of some of his trials, and have studied some of his trial transcripts and techniques,” said Charlie Abourezk, a civil lawyer in Rapid City, S.D. “I’m fully aware of his defense of Gene Leroy Hart (in Mayes County) and his work in the Santa Fe prison riot case. Without a doubt, he’s probably the toughest counsel lawyer in the U.S. He’s a legend.”

Abourezk once studied under Isaacs at Wyoming’s Trial Lawyers College — an institution founded in 1993 by noted defense attorney Gerry Spence. Since then, Abourezk and Isaacs have become more than friends, or as Abourezk described, “brothers below the skin.”

A few years ago, Isaacs received the honor of being asked to attend the Lakota’s sacred Hunka ceremony (the making of a relative) for Abourezk’s then-15-year-old son, Jamil. Isaacs humbly accepted the invitation.

“Garvin is a man of high integrity,” Abourezk said. “With somebody like Garvin, you have to look at the long arc of his career and the ethical manner in which he has always handled his cases. You will find no one more ethical.”

Isaacs, 65, is
currently representing Bobbi Parker, who has been charged with helping
convicted murderer Randolph Franklin Dial escape from the Oklahoma State
Reformatory in Granite in the nowinfamous Aug. 30, 1994, breakout. A
public debate swirled around whether Parker — the wife of the prison’s
then-deputy warden, Randy Parker — was a willing participant.

The
controversy resurfaced in April 2005, when federal lawmen found Dial
and Parker living together on an East Texas chicken farm. Parker claimed
she had been kidnapped, and held against her will for more than a
decade — a claim prosecutors found dubious at best.

Parker
will now get her day in court in January, and she will do so with
Isaacs by her side. He accepted her case in late 2008 after she had
already been ordered to stand trial.

“Why did I take Bobbi Parker’s case?” Isaacs said. “Because she’s an innocent women who has been falsely accused.”

As
for the gritty details, he will save those for a Greer County jury. He
promised a heart-wrenching story unlike any he’s ever encountered.

“Garvin
feels like that’s what he’s been put here to do: Defend lives … help
the little guys,” said Nancy Zerr, Isaacs’ law partner. “That’s in his
DNA.”

In March
1979, Isaacs successfully defended Gene Leroy Hart in the 1977 murder of
three Girl Scouts at Camp Scout near Locust Grove.

The
three girls from the Tulsa area — Lori Lee Farmer, 8; Michelle Guse, 9;
and Doris Denise Milner, 10 — were each bound, raped and strangled in
the middle of the night. The next morning, a counselor found two of the
dead girls in their sleeping bags, and the third nearby, sprawled across
her bag.

Camp
Scott closed that day among the shock and mayhem, and never reopened.
Today, it remains a ghostly monument to the youths. The woods have
reclaimed most of the camp’s buildings.

Hart, meanwhile, has never been forgotten.

THE RIGHT TO BE DEFENDED

A
full-blooded Cherokee, Hart was 34 at the time of the Girl Scout
murders and had been described in a 1978 article in The Oklahoman as a
“physical specimen” with “about 18-inch biceps.” He reportedly had been
sighted in the Cookson Hills after his 1973 escape from the Mayes County
jail, where he had been awaiting trial related to other convictions.

Acquaintances described
him as an experienced woodsman, who despite being a convicted rapist,
kidnapper and burglar, was warmly regarded as a high school football
hero among many in Locust Grove. According to a separate 1978 article in
The Oklahoman, 400 people attended a fundraiser to support Hart, who
had become the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation’s prime suspect
from the outset of the 1977 murders.

Statewide,
few believed in his innocence. Isaacs was one of those few. He believed
his client was unjustly on trial, fighting for his life.

Isaacs
won the case, but Hart then was returned to the Oklahoma State
Penitentiary in McAlester to finish sentences for burglary, rape and
kidnapping convictions. Less than three months after his acquittal, Hart
dropped dead of an apparent heart attack — a death some called
“Cherokee justice.”

Still, Isaacs defends Hart’s right to be defended, even if it cast him in an unpopular light.

“My
heart will always go out to the families of those three little girls,”
Isaacs said. “But Gene Leroy Hart did not commit those murders. We
presented evidence that showed Hart was at his uncle’s home at 13th
Street in Tulsa at the time of the murders. He was a scapegoat for the
OSBI.”

Where others saw a ruthless killer, Isaacs saw a man in the sawmill of injustice.

“Garvin
can’t stand injustice,” said Robert R. Rose III, a civil attorney and
friend from Cheyenne, Wyo. “He has no tolerance for bullies, and will
fight to the end for those who are powerless to fight their own battles.

He is a world-class trial lawyer, and one of my heroes.”

Isaacs
is a product of a childhood in Apache, a small, Caddo County town where
ethnic diversity existed long before federal laws forced the issue. A
worn, yellowed photograph of his 1963 high school football team tells
the story: Max Silverhorn, Gary Henson, Sylvester Williams, Doug
Weryakwe … blacks, whites and American Indians mingled as one.

Down
at Mutt’s Club, Isaacs could be found in those days shooting pool with
Geronimo’s cousin, the elderly Jason Betzinez. Or he might be seen at
The Dairy Mill, inhaling a
cheeseburger and fries with his pals — a rainbow coalition of youngsters
who didn’t know the meaning of class distinction.

“None
of us had any money back then so we didn’t think in those terms,”
Isaacs said. “I really didn’t even know what prejudice was until I went
away to college.”

He
earned a basketball scholarship to Texas Christian University in Fort
Worth. While traveling there, he was first exposed to the ugliness of
discrimination. The experience had a profound effect on him as he delved
deeper into the study of law and the meaning of “justice for all.”

Nowadays
he often harkens back to sleepy, summer days at his grandfather C.W.
Holman’s house in Gotebo, now a forgotten town in Kiowa County. Holman
served as the town’s justice of the peace, and routinely preached the
importance of the law to his impressionable grandson. Once, he took
Isaacs to the county courthouse in Hobart for a jury selection. A black
man was on trial for the rape of a white woman.

“I was just a kid then, but I can still remember that man’s eyes,” Isaacs said. “Pure fear.”

‘MAN OF CONVICTION’

Isaacs
intentionally surrounds himself with stories of such fear to bolster
his knowledge of the world around him. He does so with a vast collection
of nonfiction books, most of which are historical works about legendary
legal cases, philosophy and biographies of courageous men and women.
The volumes fill the numerous bookcases at his hacienda-style Oklahoma
City home, as well as his mind.

Recently,
Isaacs plucked “Old Man Eloquent,” the 1932 biography of John Quincy
Adams, from one of those cases. He thumbed to the back of the book, to
the climactic scene where Adams delivers his triumphant closing argument
to the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1841 defense of the La Amistad
Africans who revolted against their Spanish captors. Isaacs passionately
began to recite Adams’ words, only he wasn’t looking at the text.

Garvin feels like that’s what he’s been put here to do: Defend lives, help the little guys.

—Nancy Zerr

He seemed to be reading from his heart.

“Garvin
is an epic reader,” Zerr said. “He is relentless in the pursuit of
details, and he won’t stop until he feels he knows all the information.
That’s part of what makes him a great storyteller. He can relate that
story to the jury like no one I’ve ever seen.”

Abourezk added one important point: “You can’t fake that kind of passion. That’s what makes Garvin great. It’s real.”

Harold
Gene Weatherly has a firsthand understanding of that sincerity. He
served more than 15 years in prison for the near-fatal stabbing of an
Oklahoma City woman, and since has received a pardon from Gov. Brad
Henry. The FBI released a report that showed former Oklahoma City Police
chemist Joyce Gilchrist incorrectly matched fibers on tennis shoes from
his home with a rug in the victim’s home. Despite the report, former
Oklahoma County District Attorney Bob Macy never publicly acknowledged
Gilchrist’s tragic error.

Through
it all, Isaacs championed Weatherly’s innocence, hailing him as “a man
of conviction” when few would speak in his defense.

“I
think Garvin is different from most attorneys,” Weatherly said. “For a
lot of attorneys, it’s about the dollar. With Garvin, it’s about
justice.

He doesn’t pull any punches when justice is at stake. He’s a good man.”

Ultimately, Rose hopes that’s how his friend is remembered.

“My
father and Garvin were great friends,” Rose said. “Once, my father was
taking pictures outside Casper, Wyo., on the Platte River. He was out in
the middle of nowhere when he stumbled over a rock the size of a
basketball. But it was no ordinary rock. My father noticed there was an
inscription chiseled onto the stone: ‘Boaz — A Good Horse.’ “My father
took a picture and sent it to Garvin. Here was a cowboy who left this
profound epitaph to his trusty horse. My father and Garvin often sat
around and talked about that epitaph, and they could think of no greater
honor. I think that’s how Garvin should be remembered: simply as a good
man.”

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