Hugh Keefe. Courtesy photo
It was until his senior year at Quinnipiac College that Hugh F. Keefe realized he “despised accounting,” which was his major. After graduation, the Boston native of Irish immigrants attended the University of Connecticut School of Law.
He has since gone on to become a partner at the New Haven law firm of Lynch, Traub, Keefe & Errante, and has tried numerous civil and criminal cases since being admitted to the state bar 50 years ago.
“Lawyers protect the underdog from bullies including, on occasion, government bullies,” he said.
Keefe recently answered several questions posed to him by the Connecticut Law Tribune including how the criminal justice system has changed since he began in the profession.
Q: You were the first attorney in the country board certified in both civil and criminal trial advocacy by the National Board of Trial Advocacy. Tell us how you prepare for a complex criminal or civil trial.
A: I tell my students in trial practice the main difference between preparation in civil and criminal cases is discovery.
By the time of trial in a civil case, virtually every significant witness and party has been deposed and interrogatories and production requests have been filed and answered. There are precious few mysteries about what any witness will tell the jury.
Contrast that with the paltry pretrial discovery available in a complex criminal case where victims, police officers, special agents and others generally decline interviews with the defense.
This difference in the availability and volume of pretrial discovery results in making trial preparation in a civil case more time consuming and intense than in a criminal trial, where to some degree “trial by ambush” is still the order of the day.
Q: You have been active in the Connecticut Bar Association, holding several positions including chairing the criminal justice section from 1979-1982. How has the criminal justice system changed with respect to the rights of defendants in the past 30 years.
A: Our criminal justice system, both state and federal, has gotten more punitive. I attribute that to the never-ending “war on drugs,” mandatory minimum sentences, the advent of federal sentencing guidelines in the late 1980s, and a perceived view that no judge or prosecutor will ever get in trouble with the public by giving too much time in prison.
Even with the slight reductions in Connecticut’s prison and jail population recently, it’s still radically higher now. Our system now accommodates substantially fewer trials. This partially is the result of a fundamental power shift from judges to prosecutors.
In making the all-important “charging decision,” federal and state prosecutors know that a defendant is far more likely to strike a deal and plead guilty when facing a five-, 10- or 20-year minimum mandatory sentence. It wasn’t unusual in the 1970s and 1980s for a defendant to get a suspended sentence after a jury conviction. Today, it’s rare. Public trials make everyone behave better. If police officers and other witnesses know there’s a 90 percent chance they’ll never be subjected to intense cross-examination concerning their conduct in a case, they are less scrupulous and prosecutors are less critical.
Q: Of the many criminal trials you’ve covered over the decades, which one had the biggest impact on your personally and why?
A: I’ve tried many cases in state and federal court, and I learned something valuable in each. Fresh out of law school in 1969, I tried my first murder case, State of Connecticut vs. Reginald and Tyrone Osborne.
My sainted mother, Catherine Frances O’Shea O’Keefe, was my model when picking a jury up until then. An Irish immigrant married to another Irish immigrant, I thought she had tremendous empathy for the underdog and a healthy skepticism of authority.
Except for her citizen naturalization, she’d never been in a court so I invited her to my closing argument. Jack Kelly, a law school classmate, was the prosecutor.
Catherine sat beaming in the front row until she heard me tell the jury that my client could not have murdered the nightclub owner because at that very moment he was selling heroin at a pool hall two miles away and we had witnesses (addicts) to prove it.
Catherine almost fell off her chair and, when the closings were over, she marched over to where Kelly and I were standing. She loudly congratulated Kelly and then turned her guns on me: “How could you say something like that? You should be ashamed of yourself … “
Thankfully, there were no like-minded “Catherines” on the jury and they acquitted my client. But to this day Catherine remains my model juror—a model of whom to excuse.
Q: You are among the most well-known attorneys in the state. What piece of advice would you give to young people entering the field.
A: Don’t take yourself too seriously, always keep a sense of humor, have fun and do not take things personally.
Q: Who in the legal profession—whether in Connecticut or nationally—do you most admire and why?
A: Excluding my bride, Tara Knight, and my partners, I think the world of lawyers like Bill Davis, who personifies character, integrity, professionalism and competency. He is a model trial lawyer.