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South Jersey couple are lawyers in love

Tracy and Mike Riley celebrated their eighth wedding anniversary eating Wawa sandwiches on the floor of their living room, surrounded by autopsy photos and grisly police reports.

Tracy and Mike Riley at their law office in Mount Holly. (Elizabeth Robertson / Staff Photographer)
Tracy and Mike Riley at their law office in Mount Holly. (Elizabeth Robertson / Staff Photographer)Read more

Tracy and Mike Riley celebrated their eighth wedding anniversary eating Wawa sandwiches on the floor of their living room, surrounded by autopsy photos and grisly police reports.

"I think we could be married 50 years, and that will be one of the most memorable and most enjoyable anniversary dinners we've ever had," Tracy Riley said this month at the Mount Holly law office she shares with her husband.

The Rileys, who have been married for 19 years, work side by side in one of the few husband-wife law firms in the state. They have frequently provided counsel for Atlantic City, usually defending police officers in employment and excessive-force cases.

Last week, the couple defended separate clients in Camden federal court, a floor apart from one another, and had the opportunity to see more of each other than busy trial calendars typically allow.

Mike Riley made sure to catch his wife's opening argument in her trial defending five Atlantic City police officers charged with excessive force against a man outside of a casino. The jury found one officer and the city at fault and ordered them to pay $250,000 each to the plaintiff. No judgment was returned against the remaining four officers.

In the few free moments she had, Tracy Riley sneaked upstairs to the fourth floor to see how pretrial motions were going in Mike's trial, slated to start Jan. 6. He's representing Nicodemo Scarfo, son of Philadelphia mob boss Nicky Scarfo Jr., on charges involving a massive business looting operation.

It wasn't so long ago the couple were celebrating their nuptials over sandwiches while poring over one of the highest profile murder cases in state history - the 2002 trial of Cherry Hill Rabbi Fred J. Neulander. Mike Riley, a relatively new defense attorney at the time, was representing Neulander, accused of murder and conspiracy in the death of his wife, Carol. Tracy took time off from law school to watch the nationally televised case in the courtroom.

"The prosecutor at the time, Jim Lynch, kept turning around at critical moments asking if I was sure I wanted to do this," Tracy Riley said.

Neulander was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Riley called it "one of the most interesting cases of my career, peppered with fascinating characters."

Unlike her husband, Tracy Riley, who at 45 is 20 years younger than him, did not set out to be a lawyer. She grew up in Vincentown, married her high school sweetheart, and took a clerical job with the Burlington County Freeholders' Office.

She was working there when she met Mike Riley, who was with the Prosecutor's Office at the time. He would go on to become first assistant prosecutor and try more death penalty cases, 10, than anyone else in the state during his tenure. Three resulted in juries' recommending the death penalty,

As Mike Riley's career took off, Tracy was silently dealing with an abusive relationship at home. Over 21/2 years she sought and then dropped three restraining orders against her first husband, the father of her daughter.

"I fell into 'Everything will be fine, we'll work this out, we'll go for therapy, we'll go for counseling.' All those promises unfulfilled."

The experience led to her interest in law and to Mike Riley. A few years later the couple reconnected at a Mount Holly tavern. He was also divorced, and had two sons. The Rileys married in a chapel in Medford Lakes in 1994.

Tracy Riley took 15 years to graduate from college and law school. Raising her daughter, whom Mike later adopted, was a priority, she said. She also took time off to help Mike with his cases - including the Neulander case in 2002.

In private practice Mike Riley has defended a number of high-profile clients, including a woman convicted of murder for killing her brother-in-law with antifreeze, and Lester Barney, a Cherry Hill man convicted of killing his mail-order bride.

"Needless to say he's been a great resource for me on so many levels," Tracy Riley said. "Going through law school, but also working together and having the advantage of sitting through so many interesting trials."

Tracy Riley passed the bar exam on her first try and Mike swore her in at the Burlington County Courthouse in May 2008.

Professor emeritus John F. Nivala has worked with Mike Riley teaching at Widener Law School for more than 20 years.

"He can establish such a rapport with the students, and that goes hand in hand with him being a damn good trial lawyer, because I think the best trial lawyers are great teachers, they have to teach a jury, reach out to them and get them to understand," Nivala said.

Nivala, whose wife is also a lawyer, taught Tracy Riley when she was in law school at Widener. She now teaches at the school as well.

"She didn't come in expecting any special dispensation because she was married to Mike. She was just a student, and at least in my class, a very good one," Nivala said.

The pace of marriage when wedded to the law is a constant balancing act depending on who is preparing for trial. "You figuratively cut off communications, cut everything else out," Mike Riley said. "The key to practicing law and our relationship is the fact that we communicate on subliminal levels. You just kind of know. So when she gets a certain distant glaze in her eyes, another person could say, 'What the hell's wrong with you?' We don't do that because we know the other person's spinning things."

The Scarfo trial is expected to last more than six months. During that time Tracy Riley will pick up Atlantic City cases, including a number of dog-bite cases, for which the couple has developed a niche. Once the Scarfo case ends, they will take a trip to Newport, R.I.

"It's our spot. It allows us to get a bit of solitude," Mike Riley said, adding "unequivocally" that no cases would follow them.

His wife and law partner didn't buy it:

"He may sneak one or two in his suitcase."