Norris E. Gelman, 77, of Wyncote, a criminal defense lawyer who represented some of the region’s most infamous defendants, died Sunday, May 24, of complications from a heart ailment at Abington Hospital - Jefferson Health.
For decades, Mr. Gelman was a high-profile figure in his field and the cases he handled were no less so. His clients included Philadelphia mobsters Nicky Scarfo Sr. and Nicky Scarfo Jr.; Ira Einhorn, the new-age intellectual who killed his ex-girlfriend in West Philadelphia; and Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State coach serving decades in prison as a serial child-sex predator.
An expert in the state’s death-penalty law, Mr. Gelman was often called to testify in court. Over his career, he helped win reversals in sentences for 10 death-row clients and set many legal precedents. He wrote and lectured widely on the topic.
“Everybody recognized he was the best criminal appeals lawyer in Pennsylvania,” said Philadelphia lawyer and friend Dennis Cogan.
Despite his prominence, Mr. Gelman never bragged about winning. He wasn’t flashy in court. He used humor and superior knowledge to win his cases.
“He was so unselfish about sharing his time and knowledge with other lawyers,” Cogan said. “He was the kind of guy who was very decent and nice to everybody.”
Born in Oak Lane, Mr. Gelman attended Cheltenham High School. He graduated from Pennsylvania State University in 1964 and the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 1967.
Since much of his life was spent working, his legal colleagues were among his closest friends. Some were cocounsel on cases.
His base was a group practice in the Benjamin Franklin House and before that, a high-rise at 20th and Market Streets in Center City.
He never officially retired. “Despite the fact that he talked about it on various occasions, he didn’t,” said lawyer and office mate Jeremy Gelb. “Then, when COVID-19 got to a certain stage, we implored him to stay home and take care of himself, and he did.”
Known to friends as “Norrie,” Mr. Gelman began his legal career in 1967 as an assistant under Philadelphia District Attorney Arlen Specter. It was there, in the early 1970s, that Mr. Gelman met Cogan and became his mentor.
“He began to develop in the DA’s Office very quickly,” Cogan said. “He was open to teaching me the ins and outs of the criminal law in Pennsylvania. He never pontificated. A brief conversation with Norrie was a teaching session. He never took himself too seriously.”
In 1974, Mr. Gelman left the DA’s Office and became a defense lawyer. He had studied cases from both vantage points to such a degree that it wasn’t much of a transition, Cogan said.
Among his notorious clients were John du Pont, the chemical company heir who shot and killed wrestler Dave Schultz at du Pont’s estate in Newtown Square in 1996. After du Pont was convicted, Mr. Gelman worked with Alan Dershowitz on an appeal, but du Pont died in prison in 2010.
In private life, Mr. Gelman was the sort of man people loved to be around, Gelb said. He was well-read, and loved opera, classical music, and jazz.
“Not just listening to them — he was an authority on the great recordings,” Gelb said. “He was a very, very colorful guy. He was a great storyteller and raconteur.”
His daughter, Maya Cheek, said he was loved by his family and will be missed. “He was just everything to us. He was a bigger-than-life character,” she said.
In addition to his daughter, he is survived by his wife of 51 years, Carole Calbazana Gelman; a son, Michael Calbazana; and four grandchildren. A sister died earlier.
Services are private due to the pandemic.