Mark Richards: Rebel with a cause

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Mark Richards: Rebel with a cause

RACINE -- His eyes discreetly dart between a visitor seated in his law office and the stock quotes rolling across the bottom of his color television screen.

In the fast-paced world of criminal defense attorney Mark David Richards, nothing less is expected. If he's not fidgeting with his PalmPilot to check and re-check the stock market, e-mails and look up phone numbers, Richards is strategizing how to win his next court case.

The former Park High School swimmer is intense. If he's not downhill skiing with his wife and their two young daughters, Richards is relaxing his mind while sailing or hanging out with other sailors.

Back home, he works out six days a week in his personal gym. It is housed in the basement of his downtown Racine office.

And when needed, Richards squeezes in afternoon naps of a half-hour to an hour between court hearings. His routine of exercise and sleep gives him a chance to reflect on his life.

"My counselor said I was the most likely student to end up in prison," said Richards, 38, who now scoffs at his counselor's proclamation. "I never went to juvenile detention. I just had a lot of energy."

It was that super-charged enthusiasm that keeps him going even today. In court, he holds nothing back. He is sometimes hot-headed, impulsive and loud. He has no problem having a courtroom confrontation with even the most ruthless criminals.

Some say he is a bit over the edge. Others applaud his courtroom manner.

"Being able to be heard makes a difference," he said. "My voice is louder than probably a lot of people. Jurors want to be able to see and hear what's going on. They have an expectation to see you in court without directly reading from your notes.

"You think you have to fill in the air all the time. You don't. Pause and then say something."

Standing close to 5-foot-10, Richards has an imposing presence, with his deep, dark eyes and layered close-cut hairstyle commanding attention. The University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School graduate has a solid physique, with broad shoulders and a tailored look.

Admitted gang members have exploded on the witness stand as Richards practices his prowess in court. Richards has the ability to continuously ask witnesses questions without becoming flustered. Before untruthful witnesses know it, they have fallen into Richards' trap, often taking out their frustrations at a man with a mission.

He has the intelligence to back up his fierce stance in court. He is much more than just talk.

"Mark Richards is one of those guys, who, if he says he's going to do it, he does it," said Rose Lee, a veteran felony case manager in Racine County Circuit Court. "When he asks for a certain date to hold a hearing earlier than usual, I can count on him.

"If he says, 'My secretary will fax a document over in 10 minutes.' It's here in nine minutes. He has a good reputation with my staff."

Fighter until the end

Defendants know his name well. Richards has a reputation for waging the best possible arguments for his clients.

Last March, Richards negotiated a plea agreement that reduced a felony drug charge to a misdemeanor for a former Mount Pleasant paramedic who was accused of using a sedative-type drug while on duty.

Another of his clients was cleared in June of 1999 of first-degree intentional homicide in the death of his cellmate. Richards successfully argued that Kurtis King's case stemmed from poor work by Racine Correctional Institution guards, who failed to properly check up on the victim.

As a former prosecutor with the Racine and Kenosha county district attorney's offices, Richards said he takes extra caution to search for truth and justice. He said he has been fortunate to get an up-close-and-personal view of the law from two differing perspectives.

"You've got to learn the case backwards and forwards," he said. "In that respect, I've got an ability to recall and memorize better than some people. You have to have it all in the top of your head."

Ever since he was in high school, Richards dreamed of becoming a lawyer. After many years working as a prosecutor, Richards said he wanted to venture out on his own. In addition, being expected to accept sentencing recommendations from the district attorney, recommendations that he didn't always agree with, was a negative aspect of being a prosecutor.

Richards said it simply was time to move on.

Inside perspective

Richards may have a tough guy style, but his associate, Christy Hall, said Richards is much more than meets the eye. He offers needed expertise for lawyers who want to learn more about the law.

"I have learned from him that you have to do everything humanly possible, within the law, to help your client," she said. "You can't always save the clients from themselves. You can only advise them.

"You cannot take over that person's life. So when clients do something outside of what you've advised them to do, you can't internalize that. That was one of the biggest things he taught me. He makes you pay attention to the details."

Deciding to accept a position in Richards' law firm, said Hall, was an easy choice to make. She said he had a solid reputation for his grasp of the law. Although some in the legal community criticize Richards for being too harsh in court, Hall said it's all a matter of perspective.

"He's not the bragging sort," she said. "He comes across as very abrupt, both inside and outside of court, but a lot of his clients like that about him. He's very approachable but there's always people who will say, 'How can you work for him?'

"He's a very likable person who cares about what he does. Behind that facade, I've said to him, 'Chill out.' It's a very relaxed office. With the work we do it gets emotionally overwhelming, but we work well together."

Surprisingly sensitive?

Richards actually has a tender side. But he masks it well with his macho attitude, loud voice and intense conversational style.

Once he opens the door to his sequestered personality, Richards unleashes a wealth of admirable attributes.

He laughs and frequently makes jokes. His CD collection ranges from the likes of 10,000 Maniacs to Tom Petty to The Rolling Stones.

And when speaking about his mother, a child-like grin creeps on his face. She is known to most school children in Racine as the beloved Mrs. Richards. She is a popular teacher at Dr. Jones Elementary School.

Richards' dad is a manager in the city park's department. Richards' only sibling is 20 months older than himself.

"I have one brother," he said. "I'm the baby."

Many of his clients have noticed his real personality.

When he was in the hospital last year, battling a viral infection of the spine that had him near death, several of his clients came to see him.

Holding back tears, Richards said it was an ordeal he prays he will never have to go through again.

Even police officers, who many times testify against Richards' clients, sent him get well wishes.

"To wake up one morning and not be able to walk, without being in a traffic accident, you can't imagine that," he said softly. "Luckily, no one told me how serious this was. One-third of people who get it never walk again.

"When I first got out of the hospital, I couldn't stand. I had to have a chair put in the shower."

Richards said he still has not completely figured out why he believes God spared his life. But he does know one thing, he looks at life much differently now.

"I had to use a wheelchair and a walker," he said.

"That's an experience that I will never forget. I was basically paralyzed from the waist down. The way people react to you is awful. I still get broken up when I see people in wheelchairs."

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