By Andrew Meacham, St. Petersburg Times
Published: January 27th, 2009
ST. PETE BEACH — Joe McDermott believed every defendant accused of a crime deserved his very best.
For 47 years, that’s exactly what he gave them.
Known to colleagues as “the Cocky Buffalo” for his courtroom demeanor, he championed the rights of people accused of murder and rape, and represented more than 50 defendants eligible for the death penalty.
“He always said you don’t judge them by the allegations,” said Frank McDermott, 42, Mr. McDermott’s son and law partner. “You represent them to make sure the process is fair. To do anything less would be a disgrace to the oath you took as an attorney.”
Mr. McDermott died on Sunday of kidney failure and congestive heart failure. He was 75.
“I have no doubt that he is one of the longest-serving defense lawyers in Pinellas County,” said Senior Judge Susan Schaeffer, who shared a row of offices with Mr. McDermott in the 1970s and looked to him as an ethical mentor.
An accountant’s son, Mr. McDermott grew up in St. Petersburg and graduated from St. Pete High in 1951. He met his future wife, Patricia, at St. Petersburg Junior College, where peers voted him “most humorous” of their class.
After graduating from the University of Florida law school, he joined the Pinellas County Public Defender’s Office in 1961, a clean-cut era when his full beard was considered unusual.
“One of the things I appreciated about Joe was that he was very practical,” said retired Circuit Judge Robert Beach. “He cut away the chaff and got right to the meat of the coconut.”
Robert Morris, chief judge of the Sixth Judicial Circuit, called Mr. McDermott “the kind of lawyer who only comes around once in a lifetime.”
“Joe McDermott was recognized by the judges here in the courthouse and attorneys as the dean of the criminal bar,” Morris said.
In 1968, Mr. McDermott stepped down as chief assistant public defender to go into private practice.
“I spent seven happy years representing the indigent and the oppressed until I became one myself,” he told the Times in 1970. “Now it’s time to make a buck.”
Speaking in a low, gravely voice, Mr. McDermott pounded away at the state’s cases. If his client and someone else were accused, it was the other guy’s idea. If there was evidence, it was only circumstantial. If the client admitted it, the act still wasn’t premeditated. If the client faced the death penalty, he would argue for life in prison and usually get it.
In one of his most famous cases, Mr. McDermott represented Lorenzo Jenkins in the 1993 shooting death of a Belleair police officer. A judge sentenced Jenkins to death, but the Florida Supreme Court overturned it, and Jenkins got a life sentence instead.
“Joe practiced law the way lawyers are supposed to,” said Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Jack Helinger. “He cared, he advocated for his clients, and he did it with the utmost class and professionalism.”
Life did not begin and end with the law, even if it sometimes seemed that way. Mr. McDermott loved to fish and take his family to spots such as Egmont Key, Cedar Key or Gasparilla Island. He built entire village scenes, each about 6 to 8 feet long, out of driftwood, bits of copper, pieces of fishing net and rusted tin.
He also penned three courtroom novels but could not find a publisher. He was to attend a writers conference later this year to market his latest manuscript, Lethal Injection. He did all this while continuing to work. Hours before he died, Mr. McDermott asked his son to brief him on the firm’s newest cases.
“He wanted to know what we had done on them,” said Frank McDermott. “Were we on top of it? Had motions been filed? Had deadlines been met?”
“He wanted to stay at it and keep active to the end, and that’s what he did,” Helinger said. “Those were his golden years.”
Andrew Meacham can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2431.