A get-together offered chance to swap stories


Tom Kirvan
Legal News, Editor-in-Chief

Chris Brown, in 2014 a decade retired from his duties as a district court judge in Pontiac, was there along with his lifelong friend, Elbert Hatchett, the renowned criminal defense attorney with a well-earned reputation for his courtroom flair and oratorical skill.

The late August dinner get-together also attracted the likes of U.S. District Judge David Lawson, who handled defense matters as well during his private practice days, and defense attorney Gary LaDue. Tom Cranmer, a past president of the State Bar and one of the preeminent defense attorneys in Michigan, also was in attendance, as were several of his former colleagues from the Oakland County Prosecutor’s Office, Joe Papelian and Mike Schloff. A member of the Fourth Estate was invited for the opportunity to earn “Continuing Legal Education” credits.

The three former assistant prosecutors in Oakland County, each of whom has enjoyed career success in varied legal fields, had gathered to enjoy a mini-reunion of sorts while paying homage to Judge Brown, in whose courtroom they had cut their collective teeth. It was a chance to relive days gone by, to trade good-natured barbs, and to swap war stories, some of the printable and others of the decidedly unprintable variety.

Schloff, a past president of the Oakland County Bar Association, may consider a second career on stage once he fully retires from active legal duty, offering an uncanny impersonation of Judge Brown during his days on the bench.

Cranmer, in turn, journeyed down memory lane to relate a time early in his career when he crossed legal swords with Hatchett, a duel that left a lasting imprint on the young assistant prosecutor.

Hatchett, who died last April at age 84 after a storied legal career, made a habit of carving up opponents in court, particularly those short on trial experience.

“Count me among them,” said Cranmer, who was a newly minted Assistant U.S. Attorney in the late 1970s when he first tangled with Hatchett.

A year after he joined the office, Cranmer was assigned to assist his boss, Leonard Gilman, with a high-profile case involving an alleged numbers operation in PoKirntiac.

“It involved organized crime and members of the Pontiac Police Department who were accused of providing cover for the mob,” Cranmer explained. “There were something like 10 defendants and I was there to serve as second chair to Len in trying the case.”

On the eve of trial, however, Gilman’s father became gravely ill and Cranmer suddenly was going solo, squaring off against such local legal heavyweights as Hatchett, Bob Harrison, and Edward Bell.

“That one trial taught me so much about the importance of preparation and having a command of the facts,” Cranmer said. “I also, in retrospect, was able to learn a lot from the opposing attorneys, who were very skilled in presenting their opening statements and closing arguments. Elbert Hatchett, in fact, really blew me away with his opening statement. I knew enough at that point to know that I was getting killed.”

But like the mythical phoenix, Cranmer was able to rise from the courtroom ashes during the month-long trial, which ended with most of the defendants behind bars.

Papelian, who orchestrated the dinner event, told a story about one of his early setbacks in the legal world, a case where he had the proverbial “tough day in court” while appearing before Judge Brown. It spoke volumes about the character of the Pontiac jurist.

“It was January 1977 when I was a very rookie prosecutor in the Oakland County Prosecutor’s Office,” Papelian related. “It had to be one of the first times I was in court. It was a preliminary examination involving three defendants accused of armed robbery. Elbert Hatchett, his brother Bill Hatchett, and Willy DeWalt were the defense lawyers – a formidable defense team even for an experienced prosecutor. The judge, of course, was Chris Brown.

 “The problem was simple: the victim was unable to identify two of the three defendants notwithstanding every question I could think of to help refresh her memory,” Papelian said. “Quite properly, Judge Brown dismissed the case against the two whom the victim could not identify.

 “I was obviously downcast after having lost one of my first cases in court. As I was packing my bags on that cold January day, Chris Brown came off the bench with his coat and hat. He put his arm around me, telling me he was taking me to lunch. As we were leaving court, he told me I did nothing wrong, that I should stop beating myself up, and that if ‘she can’t identify them, she can’t identify them.’”

Simple as that, it would seem. But for Papelian, who would go on to rise through the corporate legal ranks, it was a “game-changer,” the kind of moment that restored confidence and demonstrated that a certain judge indeed had a heart.

“There I was – a newbie who had just gotten crushed in court,” Papelian said of the case. “I can’t begin to tell you what a difference his gesture of understanding and friendship made to me. It is something that I will always remember. He got me back on my feet.”


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