Feature: A lyrical legal career
By Kim Hasty
In an accomplished legal career in which he has taken on some of Fayetteville’s highest-profile cases and most recently received an award named for one of the men he most admires, Jerry Beaver says he has one regret.
“I wish I’d spent more time playing music,” he said.
He’s chuckling when he says it, but then again, H. Gerald Beaver has proven himself to be a man of many talents.
At age 78, he has taken on the designation “of counsel” with the firm he founded, Beaver-Courie Attorneys at Law. But neither the music nor the sense of justice has ever dimmed for him.
The musical talents started early, back when he was a boy growing up in Albemarle and his older sister would draw sideburns on his face with an eyebrow pencil to enhance the Elvis Presley imitations he did at the local theater. Later, while in law school at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, he had the chance to play with the Red Clay Ramblers, Bland Simpson and Jim Wynn, and Mike Cross at the famed Cat’s Cradle.
The legal talents would be honed, in part, during a prized internship in Wake County that lawyer Wade Smith helped him secure. Beaver was charged with searching titles but was given the chance to go into courtrooms and watch the lawyers in action. He recites the names of the lawyers he met that summer with the reverence of a baseball fan listing the starting lineup of the 1969 Mets.
“All the leading members of the bar were in Raleigh at that time,” he said. “I met Robert McMillan and Earl Purser,” he said. “I met Joe Cheshire’s father before I met Joe. I met Howard Manning, Phil Redwine and Russell Dement. I got to know and respect all of these Raleigh lawyers, and when I came here to Fayetteville, I could call on them and they would refer things to me.”
Beaver interviewed with then-Cumberland County Public Defender Sol Cherry, taking a job right after law school as an assistant public defender in Fayetteville in 1973.
“When I first came here, Hay Street was wild and wooly as it could be,” he said. “I knew everyone downtown. I knew the bar owners, adult bookstore owners and the street walkers. We used to go in the bars and hand out ACLU cards.”
A couple years later, his guitar brought him more good luck. He did occasional stints playing with bands at local bars, including the Gaslight Club on Fort Bragg Road.
“I went there one night, and Carolyn was there,” he said. “The next night I called her and asked her on a date.”
He and Carolyn Cook were married in December 1975, a relationship that would lead to both a close-knit family – they now have two adult daughters, a son-in-law and the apple of their eye, a grandson, Grey – as well as a close-knit group of friends.
It would also include some unsettling moments along the way.
“My first week of working here, I was at the old Cumberland County jail, and I saw a line of children about ages 13 through 15,” he said. “They were mostly minority or mostly poor, and they were stretched out with shackles around their ankles and handcuffs around their waists. It was shocking, even though I’d worked for three years of law school and clerked in law firms, and it was an eyeopener. And I don’t think there’s anyone who becomes a criminal defense lawyer who sees that that it doesn’t have an impact on them.
Beaver and Tom Holt, Billy Richardson and Mark Sternlicht formed a partnership that eventually took them to two different locations on Hay Street, both of which they established in older homes they renovated, and, in 2001, to the current incarnation of the firm on Green Street. The firm now includes David Courie, Mark Hearp and Hal Brooadfoot and also included the late former judge, Jack Thompson.
“Working with Jerry as a young lawyer was the best start anyone could have,” Courie said. “He would throw you right into the mix of a complex case but was always there to mentor, help and lead when appropriate.”
Along the way, they never shied away from taking on controversial or unsavory cases.
“He dedicated his practice to zealously represent his clients, whether rich, famous, poor or infamous,” said Tom Holt, who is now retired. “If Jerry represented someone, they received the best defense legally and ethically available to them. I was honored to be his partner for 30 years, but luckier to call him a friend for almost half a century.”
The turning point in the firm’s success came in 1985 when Henry Spell walked through the door. After meeting with the young man, Beaver went upstairs to find his partners.
“I told them that the case we’d been waiting for the past 15 years just came in the door,” he said. “I knew that case was out there and that it would eventually show up.”
In those days, Beaver said, “there was a lot going on not only racially but economically between the way citizens were being treated by the police department.”
Spell, already facing time on a drug charge, had been arrested for driving while impaired. An altercation with a police officer in the basement of the law enforcement center left Spell with a ruptured left testicle.
The case took four years and went to the Supreme Court but ultimately resulted in a precedent-setting $900,000 jury verdict. In the years that followed, Beaver would take on cases and clients that would make some people shake their heads. His and Richardson’s representation of soldier Tim Hennis, who would ultimately be convicted in the murder of a military wife and her two young daughters, was the subject of a book and a movie, “Innocent Victims.”
“People say they don’t know how I represent certain people,” Beaver said. “And my answer to them is I do it because I’m part of the system that depends on every part of the system doing its job. The only time you see people convicted who are innocent is when someone didn’t do their job. And that’s why miscarriages of justice occur.”
Beaver, who concentrates these days on federal criminal and federal civil cases, recently was recognized with the North Carolina Bar Association Criminal Justice Section’s 13th annual Wade M. Smith Award, named for the man who served as a mentor all those years ago.
“To be in any way associated with Wade Smith is a distinct honor,” Beaver said. “I stand on the shoulders of dozens of lawyers who have gone before me and set examples I have tried to follow.”
David Courie said Jerry Beaver is now the one who others look toward.
“Cheers to a criminal defense career that stands as an example for all of us who learned in your shadow,” Courie said at a luncheon celebration the award.
Henry Z. Spell, who in 1985 was a young man thumbing through the legal section of the yellow pages and landing on B for Beaver, certainly agrees. He’s 64 now and lives in Georgia, with a successful career in real estate.
“It took four years, but he worked on my case diligently the whole time and was very professional,” Spell said. “He had faith in me.
“Hey,” he added, “if you see Gerald Beaver, be sure to tell him I said hello.”