Colorful Attorney Finds Best Defense Can Be Offensive

Charolette Aiken Published: July 18, 1993
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Maybe it's the grin.

Garvin Isaacs is the first to admit his flamboyant style irks a lot of people.

Of course, the Oklahoma City criminal defense attorney is grinning when he says it.

Isaacs, 48, has been praised and vilified for his courtroom antics in high-profile cases.

He was catapulted into the limelight when he won a 1979 acquittal for Gene Leroy Hart, the man accused of raping and killing three young Oklahoma Girl Scouts.

"I didn't realize how much publicity that trial would create. It was a mad scramble," Isaacs said.

The Hart verdict was an "outstanding win for Isaacs," said Oklahoma County District Judge Richard Freeman.

Hart died about six weeks after the acquittal. Death was ruled heart failure after he collapsed in a prison courtyard while serving time for an unrelated burglary conviction.

That was a stressful time for Isaacs and his wife. The couple experienced the heartache of losing a baby at childbirth.

Isaacs later engineered the state's first "battered woman syndrome" defense when he represented Donna Bechtel, an Edmond housewife who claimed she shot and killed her husband because he abused her. She claimed he was lunging at her while prosecutors contended she shot him in his sleep.

"There was a lot of pressure on Garvin in that trial from (Donna) Bechtel's supporters," Judge Freeman said.

Bechtel was found guilty in two trials and was twice sentenced to life in prison.

In the second trial, the judge would not let Isaacs introduce an expert witness in the battered woman field of study. A higher court later ruled the judge erred and granted Bechtel a third trial.

She struck a bargain with prosecutors and was freed from prison after she pleaded guilty to manslaughter.

The sting of the Bechtel conviction still lingers, Isaacs said.

The battered woman defense has been called a brilliant strategy and is now a common defense for victims of abuse, but it didn't win his client an acquittal.

"I'm not in this business to set precedents. I'm here to win," Isaacs said.

These days, Isaacs represents two Sallisaw nursing home owners who have reached agreements with prosecutors in the multicounty grand jury's probe of Gov. David Walters' 1990 campaign.

The key to a successful defense lies in preparation, Isaacs says.

"That means pin down witnesses, see every medical record, visit the scene, read literature in the field, mark exhibits, blow up photographs, and get your own witnesses ready for cross-examination. " His peers acknowledge Isaacs is a perfectionist when it comes to getting ready for trial.

"He takes his cases very personally, and he's exceedingly thorough" Judge Freeman said.

Isaacs also relishes a "combative" courtroom atmosphere, he said.

"Garvin uses his style to make other lawyers less effective," the judge said.

Isaacs says he won't hesitate to tackle a difficult case, but he hates surprises. That's why he tries to be one step ahead of prosecutors and judges.

"Garvin Isaacs fears no one," said Robert Ravitz, Oklahoma County chief public defender. At one time, the two worked together as assistant public defenders.

Judge Freeman recalled an incident in the Bechtel trial when Isaacs and Oklahoma County District Attorney Bob Macy almost came to blows.

"That was a very emotional trial. Macy took offense at something Isaacs said to the prosecutors and he and Garvin got into each other's face," the judge said.

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