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Thursday February 9, 2012

In defending high-profile mobsters, he didn't like to ask what really happened

Trial lawyer focused his energy on attacking the prosecution's case, which he believed was the best defence

Special to The Globe and Mail

On a cold winter's night in 1997, Léo-René Maranda was working alone in his East End Montreal condo when his throat seized up. As he gasped for air, the long-time criminal lawyer knew he would die unless he did something fast. First, he tried to insert a pen into his windpipe, but it wasn't sharp enough to pierce the skin, bone and cartilage. Not missing a beat, he tried again, this time with a small knife from the kitchen.

Only then did he call 911.

"I only heard about it the next morning," said his son, Louis-Raymond Maranda, the president of the Quebec Chamber of Bailiffs. "One of his colleagues in a trial called. He said, 'Don't panic, but your father is in hospital. He couldn't breathe last night but he performed a tracheotomy on himself and is doing fine.' "

The grisly story is testament to a man who remained calm, no matter what he faced. With thick white hair, a mustache, a low gravelly voice and a courtly mien, Maranda, who died on Jan. 29 in Florida at the age of 79, had the air of a quiet professor rather than a lawyer whose client roster read like a criminal Who's Who of Quebec and beyond.

Among his clients over a career that lasted a half-century were the Dubois brothers, ruthless leaders of a French gang that controlled extortion rackets and drug trafficking in Montreal in the 1960s and 70s, Montreal Mafia chieftain Vic Cotroni, Joseph (Joe Bananas) Bonanno of the New York crime family and Monica Proietti, better known as "Monica la mitraille" - Quebec's own Machine Gun Molly, who held up more than 20 banks before being killed during a high-speed chase in the north end of the city.

When the Hells Angels rose in power in the 1990s, it was only logical that they turn to Maranda for legal help, too. In 2001, he told CBC's the fifth estate that bikers were getting a bad rap, blamed for a lot of the "mayhem" because they were the easiest target.

"This is not surprising," he continued. "Hitler united Germany in a common hatred of the Jews and I think the demagogues around here are doing their best to unite the province in a common hatred of bikers."

Challenged about his analogy, he replied that it all stems from the same principle: "You point the finger at somebody ... and eventually everybody hates that somebody. To me, that's not fair."

He was a fierce believer in the principles of justice, in the presumption of innocence before being found guilty and in every client's right to a full and fair trial. Indeed, he made a point of never asking people he was representing what had really happened, lest their confessions affect his defence of them.

"He built his cases solely around the evidence of the Crown," said his son, Louis-Raymond. "He was thorough and over the course of his career, his work helped refine how investigations are conducted."

Colleagues remembered Maranda as a workhorse with a prodigious memory, an ability to find inconsistencies in evidence and a tendency for really long cross-examinations that often left Crown witnesses cowering.

"He would go over the crime scene and the photographs, over and over and over, and he'd always find something that was moved or displaced," recalled Frank Pappas, who was a young lawyer with legal aid when, in 1988, he was assigned to work alongside Maranda in a high-profile case that involved five tonnes of hashish and multiple defendants.

"It was like he was a chess player. He played the other parties as if he was [Garry] Kasparov, a grandmaster who was always a few moves ahead of everybody else. And he took the time to teach young lawyers like me."

(Another high-profile lawyer in that case was Sidney Leithman, who would be gunned down on his way to work three years later.)

Robert La Haye, a defence lawyer who considered Maranda one of his mentors, described him as old school: courtly, a lawyer who never raised his voice, treated his adversaries with respect and smoked a pipe during trial breaks.

"I can't remember him ever putting one of his clients on the stand, not even once," Mr. La Haye added. "He always argued the case based on weaknesses in the prosecution's arguments."

He also had a droll sense of humour that he would use to cut courtroom tension. During the 1982 murder trial of one the Dubois brothers, for example, Maranda began his cross-examination of Donald Lavoie, a hit man turned stool pigeon who'd admitted to killing 27 people, by asking: "Monsieur Lavoie, tell us, between yesterday and this morning, did you kill anyone interesting?"

Maranda was born in East End Montreal on March 31, 1932; his father, René Maranda, owned a cab company while his mother, Agathe Vary, was a homemaker, devoted to raising Léo-René and his younger sister, Mariette.

His parents believed in the value of a good education and the son did not disappoint, excelling at Collège Notre-Dame and at the Université de Montréal, where he finished at the top of his class - an accomplishment made even more remarkable because he was laid up for several months with a heart ailment and had to do his homework while restricted to bed.

After being admitted to the Quebec bar in 1957, Maranda spent the first few years of his career practising civil law, representing groups such as insurance companies and taxi associations. But when a judge asked him to act pro bono for a man charged with murder, he never looked back.

Unusual for the time, Maranda had full custody of his son, Jean-René, from his first marriage. His second, to Thérèse Dubé, produced Louis-Raymond, now 47, and Natalie, 41.

"Even if the law took up most of his time, he was still there for important family moments," said Louis-Raymond. "Tossing a ball may not have been his style, but he was still there. Summers, when court was on a break, we spent a lot of time on our boat."

After retiring, Maranda spent most of his time in seclusion at his home in Hallandale, Fla. He didn't want people to see him as he struggled to recover from two aneurysms, from heart and kidney problems and a stroke that severely limited movement on his right side. After spending his adult years trying to keep others out of prison, losing his independence seemed like a life sentence.

But he did make the occasional foray into the outside world. Like last year, when he attended a Montreal Defence Lawyers Association awards dinner to mark the giving of an annual prize to a lawyer in recognition of his contribution to the profession. Now called the Prix Léo-René Maranda, it has come full circle: In 1988, he was the first to receive it.

Maranda leaves his wife, Thérèse Dubé, three children and three grandchildren.

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