(he allegedly drunkenly kneed the officer in the thigh). Debus got
the aggravated assault charge dropped.
In every case, Debus delivers his gutsy defense while
charming the jury with the movie-lawyer panache of a Spencer
Tracy or a Gregory Peck.
“He’s a larger-than-life character,” says James Keppel, a
Maricopa County Superior Court judge who attended law school
with Debus at The University of Arizona and worked with him at the
county attorney’s office in the late ’60s.
“He’s very theatrical in the courtroom,” Keppel says. “He’s very
focused, analytical, but also very flamboyant and entertaining. He’s
like the old-time trial attorneys of years and years ago that were
famous. Larry just fits that mold.”
Keppel was pitted against his old college pal when he served
as chief prosecutor in the AzScam case. He found Debus a
“He kind of weaves a spell in the courtroom,” Keppel says. “I
think jurors really like him; I know judges like him. And I think most
opposing counsel like him.”
Some of Debus’ favorite targets have been equally flamboyant
figures whom he feels have sought their notoriety at others’
expenses. He found himself in the position of firing Belli when
the celebrity lawyer, who had hired Debus fresh out of law school
to help him free the infamous “Trunk Murderess” locked up in
Florence, got in the way of his own client’s release.
Winnie Ruth Judd, a Phoenix medical secretary arrested in 1931
for the murder of her two roommates whose bodies were found
dismembered and stuffed in a trunk she had taken with her on a
train to Los Angeles, was well into her 60s and had spent the past
three decades in—and, on seven instances, escaping from—the
state mental hospital, before being sent back to prison. By the time
Belli called on Debus, many had come to believe Judd had actually
taken the fall for a prominent man she’d had an affair with and had
already served enough time.
Acting as Belli’s Phoenix arm, Debus had all but secured Judd’s
release at her next parole hearing save for Gov. Jack Williams’
signature, which Belli had cajoled from the governor in exchange
for keeping their meeting hush-hush. When San Francisco’s star
lawyer called a press conference the next day to announce the
woman’s imminent release, Williams canceled the commutation,
keeping Judd behind bars for another eight months.
“The governor felt [Belli] was a publicity hound,” Debus says.
“The only way she was ever gonna see the light of day was for me
to fire him.”
Debus also has strong opinions on modern public figures.
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio is a frequent lawsuit target—
and current federal investigation subject—whom Debus feels
has promoted his self-proclaimed image as “America’s Toughest
Sheriff” at the expense of his prisoners’ basic constitutional rights.
“If we ever need an example of how absolute power corrupts
absolutely, he and former County Attorney Andrew Thomas are it,”
Debus says. “When public servants get arrogant,” he says, “that’s
what fires me up. Still.”
THESE DAYS, WHEN HE’S NOT IN THE OFFICE OR ON HIS
sailboat, you’re most likely to find Debus pressing the flesh at
Sierra Bonita Grill, a moderately priced Southwestern-style
neighborhood restaurant at Seventh and Glendale that he
“Life is not all country clubs and $60 steaks,” he says. “Most
people who go out for dinner save for [it], and then they’re looking
to spend $30 total.
“The people that I associate with, I suppose you could say
we’re all elitists,” he continues. “We have little understanding of
what America is really like. Those of us who have had the good
fortune to have gone to college and get great professions, we
live in a strata that the huge majority of America doesn’t live in.
We don’t see it, we don’t understand it, and we don’t want to
know about it.”
Debus credits his own widened social perspective to his
tough upbringing (raised by a single mom, he drifted through
street gangs and married at 16) and the five years he spent
as a detective in Phoenix before becoming a lawyer. In 1962,
Debus was one of the detectives who arrested an ex-con named
Ernesto Miranda for a petty theft and, during interrogation,
got him to confess to the kidnapping and rape of an 18-year-
old girl from 11 days earlier—without first advising him of his
Fifth Amendment rights protecting the accused from self-
incrimination. This resulted in the landmark Supreme Court
ruling requiring all cops to read arrestees their “Miranda rights.”
Debus would later tell reporters, “That’s the way it was” in law
enforcement those days.
“[Being a detective] gave me an understanding, an
“When I’m in front of a jury, I can understand their troubles,
appreciation—and a tolerance—of the human condition,” he says.
“Because police officers see it all: the dregs of it and the beauty of
it as well.”
“Larry does a great job of making his clients realize he shares
their burdens and worries and is committed to help them if it
is at all possible,” attests longtime friend and former next-door
neighbor Tom Henze, another legendary old-school defender, who
presides at Gallagher & Kennedy in Phoenix. “He has an uncanny
ability to see the essence of a complicated situation and to distill
what is important into the simple terms that a jury—and some
judges—can clearly understand.”
Debus says getting out on the open seas helps him escape
that elitist “strata” and reconnect with basic human needs, which
ultimately sharpens his empathy each time he comes ashore.
and their joys, because I’ve lived it,” he says. “There was a time
when I lived it.”