In 2001, then-Assistant U.S. Attorney Gene Porter found himself in the middle of one of the most high-profile criminal cases in Kansas City’s history.
Robert Courtney, a clean-cut local pharmacist, was accused of diluting the chemotherapy medication of as many as 4,200 of his patients. The details of the case spawned a national outrage, prompting one attorney to compare Courtney to Charles Manson, and a judge, during sentencing, to declare the defendant’s crimes “a shock to the conscience of a nation.”
Throughout the intense years of negotiations, however, Porter found himself fostering a professional respect for the man who was so passionately defending Courtney.
“If you were to look up the embodiment of a zealous advocate who also conducts themselves in a completely professional way, then you’d want to look to J.R. Hobbs for that definition,” Porter said recently.
In the ensuing years, Hobbs — who is 59, bespectacled and a little doughy in the face — has managed to maintain that respect despite working tirelessly to keep some of Kansas City’s most notorious offenders on the streets.
In addition to Courtney, on his former client list there’s Matthew Nelson, the elementary school teacher accused of sexual abusing several of his young students. Hobbs also defended in the Hereford House arson case.
On Friday, Hobbs was in court representing Timothy N. Runnels, the former Independence police officer accused of using excessive force against a 17-year-old driver in a stun gun case.
And yet, according to just about everybody who knows him, Hobbs is a pillar of civility.
If movies and television have taught us anything about criminal defense attorneys, it’s that the job requires a certain obnoxiousness and showmanship — or, at the very least, an easy willingness to skirt the rules.
But during his tenure practicing law in Kansas City, Hobbs has established himself as more Atticus Finch than Saul Goodman.
For starters, he’s a Boy Scout. And not a Boy Scout in the proverbial sense — as in, he’s one of those mild-mannered, well-behaved Midwestern sorts. No, he’s an actual Eagle Scout, circa 1971.
He is also achingly polite, a little bashful, with a good dose of ‘aw-shucks’ Midwestern humility to him. In court, for many years, he would arrive wearing cowboy boots and a cowboy hat.
“And it wasn’t because he was trying to portray this image,” says Matt Whitworth, a U.S. magistrate judge who previously spent more than two decades with the U.S. attorney’s office for the Western District of Missouri. “He just liked them.”
Inside the courtroom, respect for Hobbs is far-reaching.
Juries love him, say those who’ve worked with him, because he makes them they feel like they’re part of the process. Judges, because he doesn’t clog the court with frivolous paperwork. And prosecutors, because they can take him at his word, because he never makes it personal, and, perhaps more than anything, because they know that a Hobbs client, if convicted, will never be able to successfully argue ineffective counsel.
There is a sort of test attorneys sometimes use in sizing up a fellow lawyer, says Jerry Handley, a pair of questions aimed at determining one’s standing: 1. If you had a family member in trouble, would you refer them to this person? 2. Is this the kind of person you’d invite into your home?
“And the answer to both of those questions,” says Handley, an attorney in Kansas City, “is yes.”
It is his reputation outside of the legal realm, however, that many point to in offering their opinions of Hobbs.
He has served on the board of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, helping to assemble an annual fundraiser (one of his sons suffers diabetes). He is a doting father of three grown sons and, despite his hectic schedule, always seemed to be sitting in the bleachers by first pitch of their Little League games.
In 1994, he and wife Dori — his college sweetheart — adopted a daughter from Uzbekistan. Eight years ago, they adopted two more from a Russian orphanage that was closing and would be leaving a number of girls homeless.
The shelves in his office are packed with photos of the six children. He is quick to attribute any of his success to someone else — his firm, his assistant and paralegal. None of those who’ve worked with or against him, meanwhile, seem to possess any juicy anecdotes — no incidents of table-slamming or “You-can’t-handle-the-truth”s.
In fact, no one seems to remember him expressing so much as a moment of public frustration during his roughly 35 years in criminal defense.
Asked whether that’s rare, fellow attorney and Hobbs mentee Brian Gaddy laughs.
“Yes,” he says. “That’s rare.”
Even those who’ve served as adversaries over the years — the people paid, more or less, to make him look stupid — can’t help but tip their cap.
“The essence of civility,” is how Porter puts it.
“One of the best I’ve ever seen,” adds Whitworth.
That his day job brings him into cahoots with those accused of oftentimes heinous acts against humanity presents an interesting paradox.
If he loses any sleep over the kinds of individuals or businesses he’s defended, however, he’s not saying.
Asked how he’s been able to reconcile his apparent high personal moral code with the alleged crimes of those he defends, he offers a small list of familiar refrains: everyone deserves a good defense, you have to believe in the system, etc.
Though, as he puts it, “there are some cases you would prefer not to,” there is no case, other than one that would present an obvious conflict of interest, that he wouldn’t take.
“What you learn is that everything is not black and white,” he says.
And indeed, much of his effort is aimed at illuminating that in-between area — the idea that things aren’t quite as simple as a charging document might imply. There are questions of intent to be considered, mitigating factors to be determined. There are shades of gray, in other words, even in the most grisly of cases.
Says fellow attorney Jim Eisenbrandt, “He gets very good results for his clients.”
He helped receive an acquittal for a midwife accused of practicing medicine without a license following the stillbirth of an infant, arguing that — by simply aiding in the birth — her actions hadn’t constituted the act of practicing medicine.
And in a federal case involving Hudson Foods, in which the meat plant and its former quality-control director were accused of lying to inspectors investigating a 1997 E. coli outbreak, he earned an acquittal by convincing a jury that the employee had provided good-faith information to regulators.
There have been bad days, too, of course. Despite his efforts to ensure a limited prison term for Courtney, for instance, the judge in the case sentenced the former pharmacist to the maximum 30 years allowable.
“You have to realize you’re going to lose,” Hobbs says. “You can’t get too caught up in ego. Some of the best lawyering comes in cases you lose.”
Hobbs’ interest in law dates back to high school, when as an accomplished member of the Lee’s Summit High School debate team he first began to consider a future as an attorney.
Following law school at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, he landed at the public defender’s office, at least in part because he wanted a job that would put him inside a courtroom regularly.
And though his indoctrination into criminal defense was rather unceremonious — in his first case as a green public defender, in a case in which a woman named Claire McCaskill served as co-counsel for the prosecution, he unsuccessfully defended a man accused of burglary — he picked things up quickly enough.
Through three years with the public defender’s office, then seven years with a large private firm, and now with Wyrsch, Hobbs and Mirakian, his work has come to span the gamut of American crime.
There aren’t many types of cases he hasn’t worked — fraud, murder, sexual assault — but at some point, he began to develop a fondness for white-collar cases, which today constitute the bulk of his work.
He enjoys these cases. They make him think, force him to delve into some new complex arena, soaking up everything he can about health care or environmental issues to enhance his understanding of a case.
He stations himself inside his office, studying banking law or environmental agencies and organizing a team to help brainstorm possible strategies.
On those occasions when he finds himself in court for a trial, assure those who know him, he can still hold his own. But a majority of his work is done behind the scenes, and in many instances, he finds himself working a case before it’s even technically a case.
This, as much as anything, is one of his professional trademarks: doing his homework, gathering details, doing his best to convince prosecutors that bringing certain charges might be inappropriate, or at least overkill.
When it works out, the would-be defendant walks away without so much as a charge, the local media — and therefore the public — unaware that controversy ever loomed.
On a recent weekday afternoon, Hobbs stood casually in his corner office with a pair of visitors, talking about old cases, about mutual acquaintances, about the firm’s upcoming move.
Around the time he was pointing out the business’s new location — a glass skyscraper visible from his large office windows — an assistant stopped in to inform him that a client in a not-yet-public civil rights case had arrived.
A few minutes later, having wrapped up the conversation, Hobbs walked his visitors to the front lobby, said his goodbyes and then disappeared into a nearby conference room, off to build another defense.