Detroit's 'Perry Mason' defended high and mighty

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Tom Kirvan
Legal News, Editor-in-Chief

He defended the likes of coed-killer John Norman Collins and Detroit Lions great Bobby Layne, earning the reputation in his era as Detroit’s “Perry Mason,” the legendary TV trial lawyer who seemingly never lost a case.

His name was Joseph W. Louisell, and he was among the “Legal Legends” honored by The Detroit Legal News in 1995 on the 100th anniversary of the newspaper. A University of Detroit Law grad, Louisell was the father of 10 and by the 1960s was recognized as the city’s most prominent criminal trial lawyer.

Counted among his legal triumphs was the successful defense of Carl Bolton and Carl Renda, two men accused in the 1948 shooting of United Auto Workers President Walter Reuther.

But it was his first big case that set the stage for a sparkling legal career that would span three decades. The case involved a teen, Rene DeMeerleer, who along with a companion, was accused in the shooting death of a filling station operator near Adrian. DeMeerleer and Virgil Scott were charged with the killing after trying to leave the station without paying for a tankful of gas.

“A Lenawee County Circuit Court judge arraigned, tried, convicted, and sentenced DeMeerleer all in one day,” according to The Legal News profile of Louisell, accelerating the administration of justice to a breakneck pace.

The suspect was just 17 years old at the time of the 1932 shooting.

“In this case, there was evidence, not only substantive but also procedural, that the boy’s constitutional rights – both in the nature of the crime and plea and in the failure to adhere to due process of the law – had been abridged,” said Louisell.

It was a legal point that fell on deaf ears until the case was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, which reversed the lower court rulings and ordered a new trial for the defendant.  Louisell, of course, was understandably proud of the Supreme Court decision “because it set a precedent which got many similar ‘quick justice’ victims out of prisons not only in Michigan, but all over the country.”

Following the Supreme Court decision, Louisell was granted a change of venue for the new trial. In turn, DeMeerleer was retried and convicted on a reduced charge in Bay City and was set free in the wake of time served.

“The more unpopular the case, the more he would dig his heels in,” said Detroit area attorney Neil Fink of Louisell.

Fink and Louisell joined forces on a number of cases, including the trial of John Norman Collins, the chief suspect in the slayings of six female students in the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti area in the late ‘60s. Despite misgivings, Louisell decided to represent Collins after hearing an emotional plea from the defendant’s mother.

“Joe knew it was an uphill battle, but once John’s mother talked with him, he couldn’t refuse,” said Fink. “In his heart, Joe felt he could give the boy the best defense.”Despite Louisell’s legal efforts, Collins was convicted of the murder of Eastern Michigan University student Karen Sue Beineman, and authorities remain convinced that he was responsible for the killings of five other young women in a high-profile case that would become known as “The Michigan Murders.”

While Louisell gained acclaim as a criminal defense attorney, he made his legal living in the world of civil and corporate law, principally “because that’s where the money is,” he acknowledged. It was a simple fact of life for a father with 10 mouths to feed.

Still, he did have his share of well-heeled criminal clients, including Lion quarterback Bobby Layne, a native of the Lone Star State who had been arrested on a drunken driving charge.

At trial, Louisell questioned the two arresting officers and their precinct sergeant on “whether they were familiar with a Texas accent.” They nodded that they were.

“Louisell, however, subtly implied that a Texan’s normal inflections might sound like the ‘speech of a drunken man’ to a person not familiar with the Texas drawl,” according to accounts of the trial.

“He also asked how the officer could possibly know how Bobby talked when he was drunk, when they’d never heard how he talked when sober.”

After calling several “character” witnesses, who testified to Layne’s “fine reputation” as a “Southern gentleman,” Louisell left his client’s fate in the hands of the jury, which took just 15 minutes – one quarter of an NFL game – to acquit the star signal caller.

A female member of the jury reportedly told the press later that Louisell’s courtroom strategy worked to perfection.

“Layne stuttered on the stand and had a flushed face,” the juror said.

“That seems to be his natural appearance.”
 

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