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A. Charles Peruto Sr., high-profile defense lawyer, dies

A. Charles Peruto Sr., 86, who for almost a half-century personified the big-city criminal defense lawyer in Philadelphia, died Tuesday, Dec. 17, at his home in Media.

Mr. Peruto had been ill with cancer and heart problems and began winding down his law practice in 2009. But from the 1960s through the turn of the century, he dominated Philadelphia's criminal defense bar.
Mr. Peruto had been ill with cancer and heart problems and began winding down his law practice in 2009. But from the 1960s through the turn of the century, he dominated Philadelphia's criminal defense bar.Read more

A. Charles Peruto Sr., 86, who for almost a half-century personified the big-city criminal defense lawyer in Philadelphia, died Tuesday, Dec. 17, at his home in Media.

He was surrounded by his family, said his son A. Charles Jr., also a defense lawyer.

"He was an absolute warrior," his son said. "But after kicking your ass, he'd have a drink with you."

Mr. Peruto had been ill with cancer and heart problems, and began winding down his law practice in 2009. But from the 1960s through the turn of the century, he dominated Philadelphia's criminal defense bar.

"If you did it, get Peruto," went a popular saying in the 1980s, and many did.

The list of his high-profile clients included beat cops and police officials, union leaders and business owners, lawyers and judges, gangsters, millionaires, and more than a few ordinary citizens.

Mr. Peruto once joked that he was able to represent ordinary joes because he made so much money from his wealthy clients.

"I charge by the man's ability to pay," Mr. Peruto told an Inquirer interviewer in 1978. "Better than 50 percent of the cases I take on because they interest me and I never see any money, and thank God I am able to do that. And in 75 percent of the others, I don't get the full sum we agreed upon.

"But God help the man who comes in here and can afford to pay. He's going to pay top dollar - but he's going to get top defense, the same defense work that those who can't afford it will get."

Many famous clients

Those clients, in both criminal and civil cases, included union leader W.A. "Tony" Boyle, trucking magnate and former Eagles owner Leonard Tose, Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Rolf Larsen, DuPont Co. heir John E. du Pont, Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Esther Sylvester, members of the Roofers Union charged with destroying a nonunion construction site, corrupt lawyers Barry Denker and Robert Burke, and Chester Mayor John Nacrelli.

What they got for their money was, in many cases, acquittal. But win or lose, Mr. Peruto was a scrappy, bantamweight wisecracking advocate who did not hesitate to anger a judge if he felt doing so was in his client's interest.

Known for his continual objections, Mr. Peruto finally got the better of U.S. District Judge Clarence C. Newcomer during a protracted 1994 hearing about absentee voter fraud in Philadelphia's Second Senatorial District.

Newcomer told Mr. Peruto his repeated objections made him "ashamed of the whole legal profession, including my part in it."

But Mr. Peruto's clients got an advocate who knew the law and who colleagues said had a special skill for winning over juries and cross-examining prosecution witnesses.

"He deserves whatever credit he gets," Center City lawyer Burton A. Rose told The Inquirer in 1977.

Added Rose, for years an associate in Mr. Peruto's law offices off Washington Square: "He has paid his dues, and he is every bit as good a lawyer as everybody says he is."

West Philly native

Mr. Peruto was born in West Philadelphia, one of four children of Sue and Joseph Peruto, who for 30 years operated a "mobile diner" that was a fixture at 59th Street and Lancaster Avenue.

Mr. Peruto said he once wanted to work as a truck driver but that idea faded "the first day I stepped into law school."

Law school followed a bachelor's degree from what is now St. Joseph's University and a stint as a pilot in the Naval Air Corps.

Back home, Mr. Peruto attended Temple Law School on the GI Bill and was admitted to the Pennsylvania bar in 1953.

He then joined the District Attorney's Office under Richardson Dilworth as one of a group of young prosecutors dubbed the "Whiz Kids." He stayed with the District Attorney's Office until 1960, when he left to go into private practice.

Mr. Peruto made an unsuccessful stab at public office. In 1968, he sought the Democratic endorsement for district attorney. He didn't get it and instead was backed as the Democratic candidate for city controller. He lost.

In reality, his success as a defense lawyer had already meant public office would have been a personal sacrifice.

'Just a fraction'

He told reporters in 1968 that what was then the salary for the district attorney - $31,000 - was "just a fraction" of what he was making from the law.

Mr. Peruto was named to the Board of Revision of Taxes, serving from 1973 to 1979.

For years, Mr. Peruto's most eagerly watched cases were against the equally legendary prosecutor Richard A. Sprague.

The men were polar opposites in courtroom style: Mr. Peruto, flamboyant and outspoken; Sprague, low-key and methodical. But both were tenacious in their desire to win.

Their first major contest was the 1965 trial of Center City businessman Jack Lopinson in the contract slaying of his wife and business partner.

The main witness against Lopinson was Frank "Birdman" Phelan, a former collection agent in Lopinson's loan-shark business.

Phelan testified that he killed Judy Seflin Lopinson and Joseph "Joe Flowers" Malito on his boss' orders for $10,000 and shot Lopinson in a leg to make it look like a robbery.

Lopinson's seamy seven-week trial unfolded before packed courtrooms, making front-page news and the reputations of both lawyers.

Lopinson was found guilty and sentenced to death, though that sentence was commuted to life by the U.S. Supreme Court. Lopinson died in prison in 2002.

The Peruto-Sprague rivalry reached its peak in 1978 when Boyle, former president of the United Mine Workers, went to trial - for the second time - in the 1969 slayings of union rival Joseph A. "Jock" Yablonski and Yablonski's wife and daughter.

Sprague had won a conviction against Boyle in 1974 in a trial that drew national coverage.

After that guilty verdict, Sprague was profiled by the Wall Street Journal. The article quoted Sprague describing his 70 first-degree murder convictions. It also quoted Sprague as saying his only loss was to Mr. Peruto.

In 1977, the state Supreme Court set aside the conviction and ordered a new trial.

"That's how I got Tony Boyle for a client," Mr. Peruto gloated in an interview in the Bulletin. "He saw Sprague quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying I was the best defense attorney he'd ever faced. Not that I share his enthusiasm, you understand."

At his retrial, Boyle was convicted again of three counts of murder.

From a personal standpoint, one of Mr. Peruto's most important cases was defending his son and namesake in 1992.

Mr. Peruto persuaded a federal judge to dismiss the mail-fraud case against his son in an alleged scheme to get out of paying 30 parking tickets in Philadelphia.

"Only God saves more than Chuck Peruto Sr.," quipped the younger Peruto outside the courtroom as he and his father accepted hugs and handshakes from well-wishers.

The elder Peruto said all he wanted to do was to "go to church and thank God."

Mr. Peruto was an expert raconteur and was never without a tale to tell.

During the lengthy trial of Roofers Union members for the 1972 firebombing of a nonunion construction site in King of Prussia, Mr. Peruto and his equally legendary cocounsel - Cecil B. Moore and Robert F. Simone - frequently held court on breaks in the press room in the Montgomery County Courthouse.

There, the three regaled a growing crowd of hangers-on with Runyonesque tales of trials, lawyers, and clients.

Mr. Peruto's penchant for wisecracks did not stop at the courtroom door.

In 1973, Mr. Peruto was defending former State Police Commissioner Rocco P. Urella, who had been fired and charged along with several state troopers with illegally wiretapping other troopers working for the Pennsylvania Crime Commission.

At one point during the preliminary hearing in King of Prussia, Mr. Peruto was questioning a witness about a quantity of "foreign wire" found in a passageway above the rooms of the Crime Commission investigators.

Holding the two bare ends of wire in his hands, Mr. Peruto asked: "So tell me, which end do you stick in your ear?"

The charges against Urella were later dismissed.

In 1987, when Mr. Peruto defended Sylvester, the Common Pleas Court judge, against federal extortion charges for accepting $300 cash from a Roofers Union official, he told the federal jury in his opening statement that Sylvester came from humble Italian American roots: the first in her family "since Adam and Eve - since Adamucci and Evioni!" - to attend college.

In the same case, he used his well-known technique of deflection in discussing testimony by an FBI special agent.

"Why do they call them 'special'?" Mr. Peruto mused to the jurors. "So that you think they're something special?"

Hard to dismiss

Opponents who tried to dismiss Mr. Peruto as a "clown" did so at their peril.

"It's easy to underestimate his intelligence," Ed Rendell, the former mayor, governor, and district attorney, said in a 1978 Inquirer interview. "He is extremely bright, extremely shrewd, and extremely quick. It's true that he is a performer of the highest degree - he charms a jury, he cajoles a jury. But being a great actor without his intelligence would be useless."

Mr. Peruto himself once said that his in-court persona was calculated to benefit his client. He said he did his best to be charming, polite, and engaging during jury selection.

His opponents, and especially prosecution witnesses, got just the opposite treatment in pretrial hearings.

Then, Mr. Peruto continued, during the trial the jury would be offended at prosecution witnesses for being hostile "to that nice man."

Tension felt

Despite years of practicing his craft, Mr. Peruto told an interviewer in 1995 he could not help feeling the tension build when a jury was deliberating.

"The first time I ever tried a jury trial in my life . . . I got nervous and anxious and, well, just general apprehension," Mr. Peruto said. "The last one I did, I got nervous, anxious, and apprehensive. And in between, I find it's the same way."

If he cultivated a "bad boy" image representing people in or on the fringes of organized crime, Mr. Peruto maintained a separation some colleagues did not.

Defense lawyer Simone, for example, was ultimately convicted in 1992 of helping the mob and former City Councilman Leland Beloff in a failed attempt to extort millions from a developer.

Simone lost his appeal and in 1994 pleaded guilty to evading $160,000 in federal taxes. He spent three years in prison.

When Simone died in 2007, Mr. Peruto seemed to allude to that professional risk. He called his frequent cocounsel "a great guy, fun-loving and fun to be with. Maybe he got a little too close to the baddies, and indulged too much here and there, but he was a tremendous trial lawyer."

Often honored

Among the tributes Mr. Peruto received was a Nov. 22 reception at City Hall in his honor by the Philadelphia Bar Association's Criminal Justice Section and the Justinian Society, an organization of Italian American lawyers, which presented him with its Cesare Beccaria Award.

In 2010, the Widener University Law School gave him a Widener Law Legacy Award for helping the school get accredited by the American Bar Association.

The award noted that Mr. Peruto was "the patriarch of a family that now includes six Widener Law graduates in two generations."

Mr. Peruto taught as a Widener adjunct faculty member from 1980 to 1994.

In addition to his son, he is survived by his wife, the former Josephine Petrini; a daughter, Susan; and sons James and John. He was preceded in death by a son, Joseph.

Services are pending.

215-854-2985 @joeslobo

Inquirer staff writer Robert Moran contributed to this article.