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‘The right thing’ remains lawyer Albert Riederer’s motto

Editor's note: This story was originally published on Nov. 22, 2012.

Start with a lawyer who became a U.S. senator.

Add a former chief justice of the Missouri Supreme Court, a current judge on the Missouri Court of Appeals, and a federal magistrate judge.

Throw in a baker’s dozen of other judges and include some of the most highly regarded prosecutors and defense attorneys in the metropolitan area.

Put all of that legal firepower together in one office and you would have, as one lawyer put it, “the best damn law firm, period.”

In the 1980s and early 1990s, under Albert Riederer, the Jackson County prosecutor’s office was that law firm.

As a leader of and mentor to so many young lawyers who went on to stellar careers, Riederer, 67, arguably has had more influence on the legal community in Kansas City than any other person.

Kevin Regan certainly feels that way.

“Albert is a man of uncommon virtue who always taught us to do the right thing,” said Regan, now recognized as a premier defense attorney. As a young lawyer, Regan was hired by Riederer as an assistant prosecutor.

Riederer’s legal legacy came into sharp focus recently when he announced that he was retiring from law to devote his energy to fighting a cancer that has laid him low in recent months. Earlier this month, hundreds of friends and former employees gathered at the Uptown Theater to celebrate his career and life.

“He’s good people,” said Jackson County Circuit Judge Charles Atwell, who briefly worked as an assistant prosecutor under Riederer before leaving for private practice. “He’s touched a lot of people and produced a lot of really good lawyers.”

A standing ovation greeted Riederer when he entered the Uptown accompanied by his wife, Jackson County Circuit Judge Sandra Midkiff. Some of his former colleagues recorded a video tribute conveying heartfelt and humorous anecdotes.

Among them was a former assistant prosecutor under Riederer who Atwell described as “a young, flashy blond lady” who decided to try politics.

That drew a laugh from the audience, which recognized the reference to U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, who succeeded Riederer when he left the prosecutor’s office in 1992.

McCaskill, appearing on the video, said she was proud to call Riederer a friend. She described him as one of the brightest and most gifted people she has known.

When Riederer addressed the Uptown gathering, he deflected the praise, saying he was lucky to have been able to hire so many talented people.

“It’s not me,” he said. “It’s you and it’s always been that way.”

But to so many of those women and men who cut their legal teeth as prosecutors in Jackson County, Riederer was the man who instilled in them the desire to seek justice, treat everyone with respect and aspire to public service.

Sometimes that opportunity could be uncomfortable. As a young prosecutor, McCaskill noticed that Riederer often handed cases to her that were hard and political, such as prosecuting people for absentee voting fraud or striking firefighters for starting a grass fire.

“He said just call balls and strikes and follow the law,” McCaskill said recently. “He was supporting and encouraging. He never worried about how much attention he got. He never cast a shadow over the talented young people in his office.”

An example of Riederer’s commitment to justice came early in his tenure as prosecutor with the case of Shea Lamont Jackson.

Jackson already had been convicted in the October 1980 robbery-murder of Ralph Wright and was serving a life sentence when an anonymous tipster called the prosecutor’s office offering new information. John P. O’Connor, now a top criminal defense lawyer, was working in the office as an investigator at the time and started tracking the new leads.

In short order O’Connor and police located new suspects, two of whom promptly confessed to the murder. Riederer resisted the urge that some prosecutors feel to reflexively defend all convictions, even when they’ve been shown to be fatally flawed. Riederer led the charge to get Jackson out of prison, which succeeded in March 1982.

“That’s typical Albert,” recalled Atwell, who represented Jackson after leaving the prosecutor’s office. “He was honest and decent. He told his people they should be tough but fair.”

O’Connor, who went on to get a law degree and work for Riederer as his trial director, said the Jackson case was a “shining example” of Riederer’s integrity.

Describing Riederer as “the gold standard” for prosecutors, O’Connor said his boss built loyalty in the office by letting prosecutors do their jobs and by keeping his door open to discuss difficult cases.

“He let the lawyers be lawyers and he reminded them that his name was always on the file,” O’Connor said. “If there was something that was going to have an issue that would raise public concern, he’d always ask, ‘Are we doing the right thing here? If we are, go do it.’ ”

In 1984, Riederer gave aspiring trial lawyer Thomas Newton a chance to have the job he craved.

“It really catapulted me to other positions,” said Newton, now a judge on the Missouri Court of Appeals.

Newton said he met many significant people in that office who influenced his career, but it was Riederer who provided the moral and ethical standards that guided them.

“He was not concerned with winning or losing,” Newton said. “He was such a good influence on me as a young attorney.”

Dawn Parsons also counts Riederer as a major influence on her. Now one of the most respected assistant prosecutors in Jackson County, Parsons started her career as an intern in the office during Riederer’s last year there.

But it was his advice a few years later that Parsons appreciates most. She was on the cusp of seeking political office and asked Riederer for advice. He “didn’t comfort me with a lie,” she said, and told her that the courtroom and not politics was where she belonged.

She said he told her, “I see you as a great trial lawyer and you should focus on that.”

Parsons believes the gracious and honest way he advised her was a “tremendous gift.”

“Twenty minutes in my life made all the difference in the world,” she said.

Pat McInerney, president of the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners, also started his legal career as an intern in Riederer’s office.

“He built an environment in the prosecutor’s office that made you want to work nonstop,” McInerney said. “Every day during my time there you would go to work in the morning and get to be the good guy.”

And while that meant working to put bad guys in jail, McInerney said it sometimes also meant dismissing a case. Riederer gave attorneys the authority to make those decisions.

McInerney said he was surrounded in the prosecutor’s office by a tremendous collection of talented trial attorneys.

“That was one of the geniuses of Albert Riederer who assembled that team,” he said.

Matt Whitworth, a federal magistrate judge working in Jefferson City, joined Riederer’s office in 1984 and stayed for three years. Riederer encouraged more-experienced attorneys in the office to mentor the younger attorneys, he said.

That way, Whitworth said, a green attorney facing a a difficult judge or a more experienced defense lawyer always had backup.

“You always had a second chair,” Whitworth said. “He was always encouraging and positive. Young lawyers make mistakes, and he was always there to encourage.”

When it came to hiring lawyers for the office, Riederer said he sought men and woman eager to learn and dedicated to being the best lawyers they could be.

“They certainly weren’t in it for the money,” he said. “Almost without exception they wanted to be there and do something they truly believed in.”

Riederer said he tried to be a hands-off boss, and he wanted lawyers to not be afraid to fail.

“I was lucky to find a lot of good talent and I think I was smart enough to leave people alone and let them ply their trade,” he said.