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Newsmaker: Chris Conrad / Former prosecutor now on the defense

Monday, October 14, 2002

By Milan Simonich, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Chris Conrad admits he was so vain he tried to get "Murder 1" as his personalized license plate.

Chris Conrad, 1998 photo. (Post-Gazette)

"Hey, I was a prosecutor," he says, laughing.

Even when Conrad attempts humor, it pains him to use the past tense in describing what he did best. During a 20-year career on the Allegheny County district attorney's staff, he prosecuted 200 murder cases before juries, racking up dozens of convictions for the state and hundreds of headlines for himself.

He still knows a thing or two about making news, but most of it has turned bad for Conrad.

In May 2000 and again this month, Conrad says, he was attacked by strangers armed with knives. He says two men carried out the most recent assault, on Oct. 3 in Oakland, leaving him with an abdominal wound and head injuries.

Next day, after Conrad began spitting up blood, he went to St. Clair Hospital's emergency room, then left in a rush because of what he called inadequate care.

"I checked myself out against medical advice. I walked," he says.

 
 

Name: Chris Conrad

Date of birth: June 4, 1949

Place of birth: Bradford, Vt.

Now lives in: Upper St. Clair

In the news: Conrad, formerly Allegheny County's top homicide prosecutor, says he twice has been attacked by strangers armed with knives.

Quote: "I've got a cut in my side from being stabbed last week. Nobody does that to themselves."

Education: Bachelor's degree in history, University of Vermont; law degree, Duquesne University.

Family: He and his wife, Christie-Ann, have two sons.

   
 

Mt. Lebanon police tell a different story about the hospital episode. They arrested Conrad for public drunkenness after he staggered into traffic on Gilkeson Road.

The allegation was not the first that Conrad has been reckless while drinking alcohol. Seven months ago, he was accused of drunken driving. That case is pending.

Conrad, 53, is pained by questions about his conduct and the oddity of twice being attacked by knife-wielding thugs.

"I've done a lot of very good things in my life," he says, his voice trailing off. "I know that I got mugged. I know that I walked away from St. Clair Hospital. I know I wasn't drinking."

Many of his professional acquaintances and old courtroom adversaries are sympathetic with him, saying he is a principled man who's hit a streak of misfortune.

Defense lawyer Sumner Parker, who opposed Conrad in court many times, ran into Conrad in the courthouse the day after the Oakland attack.

"He had a pretty good shiner. Why didn't I see that reported anywhere?" Parker said. "I believe Chris. I don't see any reason for him to make anything up."

Conrad says people who know him have never doubted his accounts. Some 50 victims and witnesses in cases he prosecuted sent him get-well cards in the last week.

They knew Conrad as a shooting star in the legal profession. What set him apart was his command of the law and his storyteller's gift for making every case a human drama. Conrad used his skills to put away contract murderers, street toughs and baby killers.

"In my estimation, he was as good as anyone I've ever seen," said Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey Manning. "He could keep jurors on the edge of their seats in closing arguments."

In those days, he went by W. Christopher Conrad -- the W stands for Wilbert -- a tenacious deputy district attorney who asked the state to issue him a "Murder 1" license plate. His request was rejected as inappropriate.

Cocky on the surface, Conrad nevertheless impressed defense lawyers with his fairness.

Parker remembers a death-penalty case in which his client, a woman, was accused of masterminding a murder. Conrad pointed out to jurors that the gunman had been allowed to plead guilty to a reduced homicide charge.

"I don't think Chris had to do that," Parker said. "He thought it was the fair thing to do."

After weighing all the circumstances Conrad had presented to them, jurors gave the woman life instead of death.

Conrad, in his own mind at least, seemed an obvious choice to be named Allegheny County's district attorney when the job opened in January 1998.

Instead, the appointment went to Stephen A. Zappala Jr., who had experience in a law firm but no background in criminal cases. Zappala, the son of a state Supreme Court justice, received more than three times as many votes as Conrad from county judges who filled the vacancy.

Conrad took the defeat badly, criticizing Zappala as unqualified. In turn, Zappala fired Conrad as soon as he took office.

Asked if he regrets the harsh words he had for Zappala, Conrad replied: "Every day."

"He's not done a poor job," Conrad said of Zappala. "My wife would kill me for saying this, but there's justice being done in that office every day."

Conrad sued to get his old job back, but the case was dismissed. Then he ran against Zappala and got trounced.

Like voters at large, many in the prosecutor's office did not consider Conrad the best choice to be district attorney. He was one of nine deputy prosecutors, all of whom ranked behind the first assistant district attorney. Beyond that, critics said, Conrad was living off his reputation during his last five years as a homicide prosecutor.

From 1993 through 1997, Conrad handled just 18 cases, office records show. Of those, one was dismissed and three were pleaded out instead of tried.

Conrad now makes his living as a defense lawyer, specializing in criminal cases. His roster of clients includes old friends from the police department who have been accused of excessive force or other misconduct.

He also worked as a part-time prosecutor in Greene County. Marjorie Fox, the district attorney there, said she called Conrad to see if he would handle a shaken-baby case that was being prosecuted as a homicide.

Fox said Conrad did a good job for her. But the sporadic pace of prosecutions in Greene, a county of only 40,000 people, made it impractical for him to juggle his private case load in the Pittsburgh area with work there.

Conrad has had some resounding successes as a defense lawyer.

He recently got a robbery and aggravated assault case dropped against a man who was jailed for 10 months. Conrad says it was a miscarriage of justice because of a botched police identification.

Even with such triumphs, Conrad admits he still has the heart of a prosecutor. He says he would return to the district attorney's staff in a minute if invited. Conrad hastens to add that it will never happen.

"All of this controversy and this recent activity," he said of the public drunkenness and drunken-driving charges, "make it impossible."


Milan Simonich can be reached at msimonich@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1956.

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