Sacramento legal giant Quin Denvir dead at 76

Quin Denvir, left, walks toward the federal courthouse in 1998 with fellow members of the Unabomber defense team, Gary Sowards and Judy Clarke. The team steered the government away from seeking the death penalty for Theodore Kaczynski in favor of life in prison.
Quin Denvir, left, walks toward the federal courthouse in 1998 with fellow members of the Unabomber defense team, Gary Sowards and Judy Clarke. The team steered the government away from seeking the death penalty for Theodore Kaczynski in favor of life in prison. Sacramento Bee

Quin Denvir, the longtime federal defender in Sacramento who campaigned against the death penalty and orchestrated a deal that kept Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski off death row, died Friday in Sacramento. He was 76.

Denvir was diagnosed four years ago with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, an incurable disease that results in scarring of the lungs over time. He was hospitalized last month and died Friday night at Sutter Medical Center in Sacramento, according to family friends.

Denvir, known as an unassuming man who rarely talked about himself, did not tell many of his closest associates or friends about the diagnosis.

“The first I heard that he was not doing well was two days ago,” said U.S. District Judge Dale A. Drozd, who called Denvir’s death “a huge loss for the legal community in California and, really, across the country.”

“He was a quiet, personally unassuming guy,” Drozd said.

Unless he was in court. Then, Drozd said, “he could really deliver the thunder.”

As news of his death spread Saturday among friends and colleagues, similar words and descriptions flowed: A man with grace. Class. Dignity. A brilliant mind. Witty, with a perpetual twinkle in his eye. Steely, tough, competitive when required. And, most often: “A good human being.”

“He was a lawyer’s lawyer,” said his 40-year friend and legal colleague, Dennis Waks, who joined Denvir on Kaczynski’s legal defense team. “There were just very few in the country who rose to his level. That – and he was a gentleman.”

And, he threw a mean St. Patrick’s Day party in his backyard each year – a “beer fest,” said Waks, in which “you would almost be expected to dress.”

A nationally recognized trial and appellate lawyer, Denvir retired in 2005 as the federal defender for the Sacramento-based Eastern District of California.

Throughout his storied career, he represented some of the state’s most notorious defendants and earned the respect of judges and prosecutors.

Besides Kaczynski, the architect of a string of deadly bombings that triggered a massive nationwide manhunt, he also represented Reza Eslaminia, charged in the Billionaire Boys Club murder case. He signed on with clients as diverse as Michelle “Batgirl” Cummiskey, who was sentenced to 25 years to life in the stabbing slaying of a 58-year-old Sacramento man in 1991, and Bill Honig, the former state schools chief convicted of conflict of interest charges in 1993.

After his retirement from the federal defender’s office, he continued to handle defense cases from his Davis home when it suited him and maintained his long, public opposition to the death penalty.

In March, Denvir urged Gov. Jerry Brown to commute the sentences of the 747 condemned inmates on death row in California, saying in a letter to him that he had “been haunted by the death penalty” since it was reinstated in California in 1977.

“I have represented several death row inmates who were able to avoid execution, and I lost one, Tom Thompson,” Denvir said in the letter to Brown, who appointed Denvir as state public defender in his first term as governor. “He was very likely innocent of capital murder, and his case has been chronicled by (9th U.S. Circuit) Judge (Stephen) Reinhardt as a miscarriage of justice.”

Sacramento attorney Brad Wishek, who met Denvir 25 years ago as a young lawyer, described Denvir as an extremely positive person who considered his wife, two children and grandchildren “the center of his life.”

“Quin was one of those people if you were around him, he just made you a better person,” Wishek said. “He was a really extraordinary lawyer, but he had no ego at all. He really, really cared about people.”

Denvir was instrumental in helping two of his most notorious clients avoid being sentenced to death while working as federal defender.

One was Kaczynski, who avoided the death penalty because of the efforts of Denvir and defense attorney Judy Clarke. Instead, Kaczynski was sentenced to life in prison for the years-long bombing campaign he conducted as the Unabomber that killed three and injured 29.

Clarke said in an email Saturday that Denvir’s death was “a hard one to even get my mind around.”

“Quin was one of a kind and can’t be replaced,” she wrote. “He was a rare and gifted lawyer, a wonderful family man and a dear friend. I will always cherish the opportunity I had to work with him and be part of his team.”

Complex, high-profile cases continued to roll in. Denvir’s office succeeded in winning a similar deal from federal prosecutors for Cary Stayner in the 1999 beheading of naturalist Joie Armstrong in Yosemite National Park. Stayner was sentenced to life in that killing, but later sentenced to death in state court for the slayings of three female tourists near Yosemite.

He argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, more than 25 before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and more than 25 before the California Supreme Court, including three that resulted in reversal of guilty verdicts in death penalty cases.

He wasn’t shy about standing his ground, colleagues said. U.S. District Judge Kim Mueller, who described him as an “incredible presence,” recalled the last time she saw him.

“He had a twinkle in his eye when he told me he was trying to get me reversed,” Mueller said. “He did it humanely. I don’t think he succeeded this time, although he certainly knew how to do that.”

Denvir was born on the south side of Chicago on May 27, 1940, to an Irish Catholic family and graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 1962. He spent four years in the Navy, leaving in 1966 as a lieutenant. He earned a master’s degree in economics from American University in Washington, D.C., and worked in the Pentagon for the secretary of the Navy.

While in Washington he met and married Ann Gallagher, whom he described years later as his best friend.

Denvir returned to his hometown and earned his law degree from the University of Chicago in 1969, then went to work for a large Washington law firm.

He remained a devoted Notre Dame sports fan – so much so that Waks, also from Illinois, knew better than to ever call him and interrupt a televised game.

In 1971, Denvir decided he wanted to work for the public good and took a job in El Centro with California Rural Legal Assistance, a nonprofit that works for the interests of migrant laborers and the poor.

“I had worked for big, corporate clients, and felt there were a lot of lawyers who could do a fine job for them,” he told The Sacramento Bee in 1996. “It occurred to me that I could do more good working for people who couldn’t afford me.”

Civil rights lawyer Cruz Reynoso was director of California Rural Legal Assistance when Denvir found his way to the organization. Reynoso recalled that it was an “exciting” time for young lawyers like Denvir, who discovered that legal services “had the resources to properly represent poor people.”

“It was exciting for lawyers who were optimistic and wanted to do good things. He was that type of person,” said Reynoso, a former California Supreme Court justice who is now is a professor of law emeritus at UC Davis School of Law.

Denvir also spent a year as a public defender for Monterey County and in 1978 was appointed by Brown to be the state public defender, a post he held until 1984.

He worked for a civil firm until 1987, when he set out as a sole practitioner specializing in criminal defense work. In 1996, he was appointed as federal defender for the Eastern District of California and remained there until his retirement in 2005.

Upon leaving the federal defender’s office, Denvir confided to Waks that it felt like a “100-pound weight was off his shoulders,” given the enormity of what was at stake for his clients. Life, death, perhaps years in prison.

“He said he got chills when he drove by the jail,” Waks said.

Marjie Lundstrom: 916-321-1055, @MarjieLundstrom