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Courtroom Cowboy

By Ralph Cipriano

At the Philadelphia Inquirer, where I worked as a reporter, Jim Beasley was so feared and despised that my editors called him the antichrist. Beasley was the king of libel suits who had made a career out of suing the Inquirer; he was notorious for assaulting journalists on the witness stand and for scoring multimillion-dollar libel verdicts. So when I secretly went to see him in the summer of 1998, I felt like a traitor. But I was in trouble and needed his advice.

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 "The Beasley Building," at the corner of 12th and Walnut Streets, was a Gothic stone castle, the former headquarters of the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania. Behind heavy wrought iron gates, the place still had the feel of a 19th century church, with its leaded stained glass windows, marble fireplaces, and glowing Victorian candle chandeliers.

The receptionist at the front desk told me to go right up, Mr. Beasley was expecting me. His executive office was a cavernous second-floor suite featuring 15-foot ceilings that once belonged to the bishop. 

At first glance, I thought Beasley, in his early 70s, was the image of a distinguished trial lawyer, with his flowing silver mane, craggy face, and intimidating brown-eyed stare. But then I saw some rough edges: slightly crooked teeth, a gaudy brass belt buckle emblazoned with a famous World War II fighter plane - the P51 Mustang - and, under faded jeans, a pair of cowboy boots.

I was in a jam; my boss, the editor of the Inquirer, had just called me a liar on the front page of the Washington Post's Style section. My boss was upset because a story I wrote about lavish spending by the Catholic archbishop of Philadelphia - a story the Inquirer had declined to print for political reasons - had just been published by another newspaper. When Howard Kurtz of the Post called my boss to ask why he hadn't run the story, my boss defended himself by trashing me, saying I wrote things that weren't true. He also refused to apologize, even though he had been urged to do so at a staff meeting attended by 45 colleagues. 

So I was a reporter with a credibility problem, trying to decide whether the only way to restore my reputation was to sue my editor and my own newspaper for libel. And who knew more about suing the "Inky" than the antichrist?

Like many clients before me who sat in Beasley's office, I was overcome with anxiety. Did I have a case? If I did sue, would it be the end of my career? And if I didn't sue and got fired, and nobody else would hire me, how would I pay the bills and put the kids through college?

Beasley took charge, calmly asking questions, and listening intently to the answers. "I think you've got a good case," he said finally, in a voice with a hint of a Southern accent, but he warned that libel suits were never easy.

I didn't know much about the subject, so Beasley leaned back in his upholstered leather chair and rattled off an impressive synopsis of a couple hundred years of American libel law. While Beasley filled me in on the meaning of public figures and actual malice, I glanced around his cherry paneled walls, at all the legal awards and plaques commending outstanding generosity to charities and to Temple University, Beasley's alma mater.

It was hard not to be impressed with Beasley, but I couldn't make up my mind whether I had the guts to hire him. "Thanks for your time," I said as I was leaving, "but I've got a lot to think about. Maybe my boss and I can work things out."

Beasley didn't think so, but he didn't want to talk me into anything. "Good luck," he said, sticking out his hand. "You've got a decision to make, buddy, and I can't make it for you."

Not many people shared my favorable impression of Jim Beasley. Besides being hated by journalists, he was also unpopular with doctors and lawyers, because of his work in malpractice law. This guy had a talent for making enemies all over town.

A lawyer friend of mine said he wouldn't hire Beasley if his neck was on the line. "Beasley's a gambler," my friend said. "Do you want to put your life in the hands of a gambler?" My friend advised me to go see another top city lawyer who had a reputation for being cool under fire, someone less reckless and unpredictable. 

Read more from chapter 17

Art of Jim Beasley Sr.
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