His contemporaries are mostly dead or long retired.

But at 91, Richard Aurel Sprague can be found daily in City Hall's Courtroom 653, acting the role of silent field marshal for the defense of his 91-year-old client, New York real estate speculator Richard Basciano.

The stakes couldn't be higher for multimillionaire Basciano, the lead defendant in the Common Pleas Court civil trial of lawsuits filed on behalf of the six people killed and 13 injured on June 5, 2013, when a building being demolished collapsed and crushed the adjacent Salvation Army thrift store at 22nd and Market Streets.

Basciano owned the building that collapsed. Lawyers for the victims maintain that he should be held financially responsible because he and his firm focused on cost and hired an incompetent demolition contractor and a local architect to monitor the work.

Sprague looks his years. Age has bent him almost in half, and in court he is almost invisible behind an array of technical equipment and the younger lawyers who tower over him.

Those who know him say they are not surprised that Sprague is still a litigator.

"He's a born competitor," said Ed Rendell, the former governor and Philadelphia mayor and district attorney, who worked with Sprague when both were in the prosecutor's office when Arlen Specter was district attorney. "He probably competed the first day he was born and he'll probably be competing his last day on Earth."

The collapse trial is entering its 11th week, and Judge M. Teresa Sarmina has told the jurors and parties it could run until Feb. 3. Sprague has ceded the heavy lifting - questioning witnesses - to younger men: his son and law partner, Thomas A. Sprague, 60, and associate Peter A. Greiner, 43.

Sprague, however, has not lost his sense of courtroom theatrics, and periodically his deep, gravelly baritone interrupts the proceedings with an objection.

One such eruption occurred Thursday, when Sprague rose and called for a mistrial and for the judge to step down, accusing her of favoring the victims over defendants.

Late in the day Wednesday, a key expert witness called by Sprague's firm unexpectedly gave testimony adverse to Basciano.

Sprague blamed Sarmina for letting plaintiffs' lawyer Robert J. Mongeluzzi elicit the testimony in cross-examining structural engineer Najib Abboud.

Sprague said Sarmina had compounded the problem by questioning Abboud and letting him elaborate on his responses to Mongeluzzi.

"The overall conduct of this trial has shown that your honor has made an unbelievable number of inconsistent rulings favoring the plaintiffs over the defense," Sprague told Sarmina.

Sarmina, 64, a judge since 1997 known for her no-nonsense control of the courtroom, denied Sprague's mistrial motion and refused to step down.

The judge also threw her own verbal jabs at Sprague for not attending sidebar conferences at which trial issues were discussed and for waiting a day before objecting to her questioning Abboud. Generally, if a lawyer doesn't immediately object, the objection is considered waived.

Sprague replied that he was "so shocked by what I heard" that he needed the night to consult with his team and to study the trial transcript.

Sarmina looked skeptical. "I don't think anyone in this room would question your acuity," she told Sprague, "and I'm rather surprised to hear you were so shocked that it left you speechless and actionless."

Mongeluzzi, Sprague's nemesis throughout the trial, called Sprague's move "baseless" and an "effort to intimidate this honorable court."

Contending that Sprague knows he is losing, Mongeluzzi called the motions for mistrial and recusal "a Hail Mary pass to try to pull off a miracle."

"More hot air," growled Sprague.

Decades of experience

Intimidation is one of Sprague's strong suits, and he doesn't have to do much to play it.

For many of the score of lawyers in the collapse trial, this is the case of a lifetime.

Sprague's lifetime is a long list of such cases.

Beginning in 1957, Sprague spent 17 years with the District Attorney's Office, most as chief of homicide, the last eight as first assistant district attorney.

He was still a Philadelphia prosecutor in 1970 when Washington County, Pa., appointed him special prosecutor to oversee the investigation, arrest, and prosecution of the killers of United Mine Workers official Joseph A. "Jock" Yablonski and his wife and daughter.

In 1976, he was named chief counsel and director of the ill-starred U.S. House Select Committee on Assassinations, reviewing the 1963 killing of President John F. Kennedy and the 1968 slaying of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr..

Leaving the role of prosecutor behind, Sprague became wealthy as a private litigator representing such celebrities as famed trial lawyer F. Lee Bailey and former Philadelphia 76ers star guard Allen Iverson.

He also became famous for a difficult relationship with the media, including the Inquirer.

Sprague sued the Inquirer over an investigative report about Sprague's alleged involvement in a 1963 murder investigation when he was a city prosecutor. The case spanned nearly a quarter century and two trials before Sprague won $34 million in damages and a settlement.

Despite that history, Sprague became the Inquirer's unlikely champion when he was hired by two of its co-owners, the late Lewis Katz and H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest, in their successful 2014 legal battle with co-owner George E. Norcross III over control of the company that owns the Inquirer, Daily News, and Philly.com.

Given his age, the collapse trial could be Sprague's swan song. Yet his son told Sarmina earlier that Sprague intends to make the closing argument to the jury on behalf of Basciano.

Former Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham, who calls Sprague a friend and colleague of 50 years, would not bet on this being his last bow, saying Sprague's mind is as sharp as ever.

"He really is a warrior," Abraham said. "He doesn't give up on anything. They'll probably carry him out of the courtroom on a stretcher."

215-854-2985@joeslobo