Attorney Richard A. Sprague — the ‘fearless, fearsome, and feared’ giant of the Philadelphia legal world — has died at 95
Sprague died Saturday after a brief illness and a near seven-decade career as a relentless prosecutor, peerless civil litigator and towering figure in the history of Philadelphia courts.
Richard A. Sprague — a towering figure in Philadelphia’s legal community who over a nearly seven-decade career as a relentless prosecutor, unflinching congressional counsel, and peerless civil litigator established himself as one of the city’s, if not the nation’s, most preeminent attorneys — died Saturday at his home in Haverford. He was 95.
Equally respected and feared for his ferocious courtroom persona honed through exhaustive preparation, inventive strategy, and incisive cross-examination skills, he became the go-to lawyer for city notables when they found themselves facing seemingly intractable legal problems.
His client list included the likes of Allen Iverson, former Mayor Frank Rizzo, former State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo, famed defense attorney F. Lee Bailey, and the late Inquirer owners Lewis Katz and H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest. Dozens of others, over his more than half century practicing law, also came to discover the value of having Mr. Sprague on their side.
But just as many learned to fear him as a methodical and merciless adversary, both in and out of court. He sent 400 accused murderers to prison in his 17 years at the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, clashed with congressmen while investigating the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and sued countless news outlets for libel over the years, including The Inquirer.
His 2008 biography, titled Fearless: The Richard A. Sprague Story and written by former Daily News reporter Joseph R. Daughen, was the result of one such libel suit. A settlement agreement he reached with the American Bar Association required it to publish the book, after one of its periodicals described him as a “lawyer-cum-fixer.”
The work’s title — said Center City litigator and friend Shanin Specter — was fitting.
“He was fearless, fearsome, and feared,” Specter said. “He would take on very, very difficult legal battles, which is why he was called fearless. He was fearsome because he was such a presence in the courtroom, and he was feared because folks felt that he could both create and destroy.”
Bailey, writing the book’s forward, described Mr. Sprague as “one of the greatest courtroom lawyers in America.”
Few could match him in passion and tireless dedication to his craft — or for sheer endurance, said his son Thomas, who worked by his side at their Rittenhouse Square law firm for more than 30 years.
Well into his 90s, Mr. Sprague was still trying high-profile cases that would have been the envy of lawyers a third his age, like the record-setting, 17-week-long civil trial in the deadly 2013 Center City building collapse in which he represented developer Richard Basciano.
“No matter who you were as a client, no matter the case, he gave it his all and left no stone unturned,” the younger Sprague said. “He really fought as zealously for his clients as any attorney I’ve ever seen.”
Multiple generations of the city’s most well-known lawyers — including former Gov. Ed Rendell and former District Attorney Lynne Abraham, who both worked for him as young prosecutors — learned the profession at his knee.
Mr. Sprague was known as a demanding boss with an at times sharp temper, but even the many attorneys who found themselves on the wrong side of it over the years for less than perfect work, said he had made them better lawyers. Outside of work, his family described him as an incredibly generous and loyal friend with a voracious curiosity and sharply inquisitive mind.
“There are good lawyers in every generation, but there are very few extraordinary lawyers,” Rendell said. “I would rank him as one of the three or four most effective lawyers of his generation.”
Describing his own talents, Mr. Sprague was more modest, telling The Inquirer in a 1985 interview that he didn’t think of himself as “particularly that good.” When a rival counsel accused him in court of being a “bully” in a 2009 case, Mr. Sprague responded with a characteristic shrug.
“Some people see me as a bully, others see me as a saint,” he said. “It’s in the eye of the beholder.”
Born in Baltimore in 1925, he was the son of two psychoanalysts who failed to persuade him to follow in their career footsteps. His mother had emigrated from Palestine, and then, Vienna while she was pregnant with him, saying she wanted her son to have the option of becoming president if he wanted to one day.
Had Mr. Sprague not become a lawyer, he likely would have pursued a career as a scientist, he told the Penn Law Journal in 2009.
“I love science — especially the study of the universe and the stars,” he said. I’m always excited to hear about new planets and new solar systems. The idea that there are more stars out there than grains of sand — that’s just mind-shattering.”
A childhood in Detroit, New York, and Lexington, Ky., culminated in his decision to enlist as a U.S. Navy submariner in 1943. He was quickly shipped off to war and served right up until the Japanese surrender aboard the USS Missouri — at the time of that historic moment, Mr. Sprague was on a sub in Tokyo Bay.
After his discharge, he returned home, joining his family in Philadelphia, and enrolled at Temple University and later the University of Pennsylvania law school.
His career as a law student was largely unremarkable, offering little to suggest the heights to which he would later rise.
But as a newly minted attorney he quickly went to work, spending three years in private practice and two years as a public defender before joining the DA’s Office in 1958. It was there that the first glimpses of his formidable career to come began to emerge.
‘An avenging angel’
As a prosecutor, Mr. Sprague tried and convicted more than 400 defendants accused of murder and handled some of the most headline-grabbing cases of the day, including those against club owner Jack Lopinson and hit man Frank “Birdman” Phelan, convicted in ’65 for the slayings of Lopinson’s wife and business partner.
Three years later, Mr. Sprague sent former Inquirer reporter and Pulitzer finalist Harry J. Karafin, to prison on more than 40 counts of blackmail and corrupt solicitation tied to payments he sought from potential story subjects looking to avoid negative press.
“He had this ability to convey to juries that he was representing the side of righteousness against the side of pure evil, regardless of who that was,” said Rendell. “He came off in court more like an avenging angel more than any lawyer I’ve ever seen. He became a prosecutor feared by everyone.”
Those skills — combined with a scrupulous attention to even the smallest details and meticulous choreography of witness testimony — led to Mr. Sprague’s promotion as first assistant in 1966 under then-District Attorney Arlen Specter. Within a few years in that post, his power and prestige came to rival even that of his boss.
But his tenure was not without controversy. He drew criticism for being soft on wrongdoing by the police and some questioned his tactics in court.
Lynne Abraham, who worked under Mr. Sprague as a young assistant district attorney after first encountering him in her law classes at Temple, described Mr. Sprague as a hard-charging and relentless manager who drove young attorneys to the brink.
“He had a temper that was like Mount Etna, and anybody who knew him knew about that temper,” she recalled. But, she added, it subsided quickly outside of working hours, when Mr. Sprague became “like a totally different human being” — charming, effusive, genteel.
U.S. District Court Judge Michael Baylson worked as chief of homicide under Mr. Sprague in the ’60s, recalling him as a “terrific mentor” who shared his time freely discussing cases with young lawyers.
“He had this way of asking questions,” Baylson recalled. “He was the master of going for the jugular and capturing a witness’ knowledge with very few questions to bring out the important points right away.”
Mr. Sprague always credited that knack and his skill for reading juries with the probing questions his psychoanalyst parents would ask him over the dinner table as a child.
Because of his growing reputation in the DA’s Office, Mr. Sprague was tapped in 1969 as special prosecutor in the case that even a half-century later many still describe as the greatest legal feat of his career: prosecuting the killers of United Mine Workers official Joseph “Jock” Yablonski, who was slain alongside his wife and daughter in a rivalry over the union’s presidency.
Mr. Sprague meticulously built a case against Tony Boyle, Yablonski’s rival for leadership, with a series of trials against the associates Boyle had hired to carry out the killings.
Boyle’s conviction won Mr. Sprague national acclaim. But when Arlen Specter’s successor, F. Emmett Fitzpatrick Jr., took over the office in 1974 and tried to rein Mr. Sprague in, the two quickly clashed.
He turned on his new boss, announcing publicly that Fitzpatrick had lied about his involvement in another controversial case. Fitzpatrick fired Mr. Sprague but ultimately lost his reelection race in a campaign dogged by those same accusations.
By that time, though, Mr. Sprague had moved on to his next act.
Clashes in Congress
In 1976, Mr. Sprague was chosen as special counsel to the U.S. House Select Committee on Assassinations investigating the slayings of Kennedy and King.
He approached the job with the same bulldozing style that had made him such a force in Philadelphia and quickly ruffled feathers at the Capitol.
Members of Congress balked at the $6.5 million budget proposal he initially submitted — the largest such spending plan ever proposed and four times the amount spent on the impeachment investigation of President Richard M. Nixon.
His dismissal of traditional congressional protocols put him at odds with the committee’s chairman, Rep. Henry B. Gonzalez, of Texas, who tried to fire him, calling him a “rattlesnake” and an “unconscionable scoundrel.”
But Mr. Sprague got the better of him, too, lining up the support of the committee’s other 11 members and prompting Gonzalez to quit in frustration.
Though the incident would influence Mr. Sprague’s own eventual resignation from the committee, he would relish the victory for years.
“I’m sure in the history of the Congress it was the first time it had ever happened that a chief counsel fought with the chairman and the chairman was the one that was removed,” he told The Inquirer in a 1985 interview.
But he stood by his conduct.
“My client at the time in my view was not the committee, it was not even the Congress of the United States,” Mr. Sprague said. “In a sense, what I was doing, I was doing for history. And to do something for history means you do it right. You don’t cut corners. You stand up for what is right, what you believe in. And if they don’t like it, tough.”
Mr. Sprague’s military service, his nearly two decades as a prosecutor and a central role in historic congressional proceedings would have been enough to fill several careers. And yet, it was his more than four-decade-long fourth act as one of the city’s most powerful private litigators that cemented his legacy in Philadelphia.
Operating out of an elaborately decorated office in the Wellington Building on 19th Street, he became wealthy off the blockbuster judgments he won on behalf of clients and high-profile criminal defense work.
“He truly was a fearless advocate no matter who he was representing,” his son and law partner, Thomas, said. “No matter the case, he gave it his all and left no stone unturned. He fought as zealously as any attorney as I’ve ever seen.”
When 76ers star Allen Iverson found himself charged with multiple felonies in 2002 stemming from an incident in which he forced his way into his cousin’s apartment with a gun while looking for his wife, he turned to Mr. Sprague, who refused to consider a plea deal and stood strong until the case was eventually dropped.
He represented heir and philanthropist John E. du Pont in his headline-grabbing 1996 murder case for the slaying of wrestler David Schultz, mounting an insanity defense. When prosecutors questioned how du Pont could be insane when he signed a contract agreeing to pay a $1 million retainer to his lawyer, Mr. Sprague responded: “That was his one moment of lucidity.”
For years, he served as Vince Fumo’s legal hammer, often working in court to advance priorities the former state senator was pursuing in Harrisburg. Fumo once described Mr. Sprague as a “father figure” before the two had a falling out that eventually ended with Mr. Sprague testifying for the prosecution at the politician’s 2009 corruption trial.
In time, Mr. Sprague also became known for his often contentious relationship with the press.
His first suit of many libel suits against The Inquirer came in 1973 over a series of stories the paper had published suggesting Mr. Sprague, as a city prosecutor, had “quashed” an investigation into a 1963 murder case because the son of one of his close friends had been identified as a potential suspect.
Sprague vehemently denied the accusation and after a legal battle that spanned nearly a quarter century and two trials, won a $34 million judgment. The paper appealed, and the case was eventually settled for an undisclosed sum.
But when William K. Marimow, then a young reporter at the paper, was sent to cover one of the verdicts in that case, Mr. Sprague responded acidly with a challenge.
“Let’s see The Inquirer put an apology on the front page because an American jury found you to be a disgrace to the publishing industry,” he said. “Let’s see if you have the guts to do it.”
The story ran on the paper’s front page the next day.
The victory cemented Mr. Sprague as the attorney of choice for plaintiffs across the region who had a grievance against the media.
Over the years, he filed more than a dozen lawsuits against The Inquirer, the Daily News, the American Bar Association, the Philadelphia Bulletin, sportscaster Howard Eskin, and others pursuing defamation claims on his own behalf and for clients ranging from Frank Rizzo and labor leader John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty as well as former state Attorney General Kathleen Kane.
But despite that history, Mr. Sprague became The Inquirer’s unlikely champion, two of its co-owners, the late Lewis Katz and H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest, hired him to represent them in their successful 2014 legal battle with co-owner George E. Norcross III over control of the company that owned the paper at the time.
Marimow — who had become The Inquirer’s editor only to be ousted as part of the contentious dispute — worked closely with Mr. Sprague during the litigation which eventually saw him restored to his old post.
“It was amazing to me how a man of his age could have such incredible analytical skills,” Marimow said. “If I wrote him an email at 3 in the morning, he wrote me back at 3:15. It really was something.”
The two would go on to develop a personal friendship, despite the many legal battles Marimow’s paper waged against Mr. Sprague — some successful and others not.
Marimow explained Mr. Sprague’s lifelong battles with the media as driven in part by the ferocity he put to work on behalf of all of his clients. “But part of that had to do with his belief that the press had an obligation to be fair,” Marimow said.
At the age of 91, when many of his contemporaries were long retired or dead, Mr. Sprague undertook one of the most grueling efforts of his legal career — a marathon, 17-week civil trial on behalf of the six people killed and 13 injured, when a building being demolished at 22nd and Market Streets collapsed and crushed an adjacent Salvation Army thrift store.
The case — the longest trial in Philadelphia court history — could have been Mr. Sprague’s swan song. By that point, his physical abilities had diminished. Age left him bent almost in half. But the penetrative legal mind and penchant for courtroom theatrics that made him famous showed no signs of slowing.
Opposing Mr. Sprague in the courtroom and representing the plaintiffs was Robert J. Mongeluzzi.
“We basically went six and a half months, and Dick Sprague, at age 91, was there every single day,” Mongeluzzi recalled. “We’d get to court at 8:30 in the morning, leave at 5 o’clock and go home and work all hours of the night. For a 91-year-old lawyer it was absolutely mind-boggling — and he was still the smartest lawyer in the courtroom.”
He worked routinely up until the coronavirus pandemic triggered court closures last year — a development that prompted Mr. Sprague to pull back from his legal practice.
“He never lost a step in terms of mental acuity or his inquisitiveness,” his son, Thomas, said. “He was still as sharp as the day he started.”
‘He performed his part admirably’
Despite his reputation as a pit bull in court, outside of work, Mr. Sprague lived a mostly private life, spending much of it entertaining or hosting family events at Springwood, the Main Line estate that he had named after President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s home in New York and where he had lived up until his advanced age prompted a recent move to a smaller residence in Haverford.
Friends and family members described him as deeply generous, caring, and loyal to those he held close. He was an avid online chess player and enjoyed regular trips to his box at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House, listening to his beloved Wagner and Puccini. Wagner’s Tannhäuser was a particular favorite, the last opera he attended with his mother.
He was an avid photographer and reader, known for devouring several newspapers before dawn and detailing his thoughts on their articles in daily e-mails he would send to a list of colleagues and correspondents — often before many of them had even awakened for the day.
He doted on his eight grandchildren attending graduations, birthday parties, holiday celebrations and loved spending time with them watching movies, playing chess, talking and listening to music, the family said.
“He loved to learn and to try new things,” his daughter, Barbara said. “He’d been a legend and an icon — not only in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania and the nation — but he was quite a family man.”
The ailment that led to Mr. Sprague’s death this weekend came on suddenly.
Up until Thursday evening, he hosted his daughter for one of their first in-person dinners since the onset of the pandemic. After falling ill later that evening, he died within 48 hours surrounded by members of his family.
Hours later, Thomas Sprague struggled to sum up his father’s monumental career in words.
“I’ve really been so lucky to have him as my father and to have been able to practice law together with him. There were so many facets to his career,” he said. “It really was quite a journey, and he performed his part in it admirably. We were really blessed to have him with us all these years.”
In addition to Thomas, Barbara, and his grandchildren, Mr. Sprague is survived by his longtime companion, Edith Magaziner.
A memorial service will be livestreamed at 1 p.m. Thursday at www.levinefuneral.com, followed by a private interment.
Inquirer staff writers Jacob Adelman and Craig R. McCoy contributed to this article.