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A titan of the Minnesota legal community has died.

Joe Friedberg, who in nearly 60 years as an attorney represented some of the region's most high-profile criminal defendants, including NFL players, politicians, murderers, drug lords and swindlers, succumbed to colon cancer Monday. He was 87.

His colleagues in the legal world remember Friedberg as a gregarious, larger-than-life character whose legend preceded him in the courtroom, often evoking a smirk from a judge or opposing counsel who knew they'd be in for a good show when Friedberg walked through the door.

"I feel like we lost a relic in time, a true living legend," said fellow defense attorney Ryan Pacyga, who called Friedberg "one of the godfathers of criminal defense in Minnesota."

Friedberg's lore was born out of humble beginnings: Originally from Brooklyn, N.Y., he attended law school in North Carolina, where he met his wife, and moved to Minnesota as a young man selling Britannica Encyclopedias. The door-to-door salesman job turned into an education in the unpredictable nature of the populace that would one day comprise his jury pools, giving him fodder for stories later of being insulted by kids, chased off porches by knife-wielding prospective clients and urinated on by a German Shepherd.

One of his successful sales was to a federal judge, who was so impressed with Friedberg he persuaded him to take the Minnesota bar exam, said Friedberg's son, Mike Friedberg.

Joe Friedberg in a 1992 Star Tribune file photo.
Joe Friedberg in a 1992 Star Tribune file photo.

Stormi Greener

With a quick wit, uncanny ability to read a witness and impressive recall when it came to the law, Friedberg established himself as one of the most capable and hardworking lawyers in the state, winning cases others deemed unwinnable. Along with a couple of other up-and-coming attorneys, Friedberg helped build a new school of high-quality defense in Minnesota, said Bruce Rivers, a defense attorney who worked out of Friedberg's office for more than two decades.

"He's probably the most clever guy I ever met," said Rivers. "He had the greatest luck on cases."

In the 1980s, Friedberg boosted his career by working on a landmark lawsuit against the makers of the birth control device Dalkon Shield, who had ignored repeated warning signs of serious health concerns for users. A few years later, he caught a case that would become the subject of national headlines and late night show jokes: Gerald and Judy Dick, a wealthy Roseville couple who were charged, along with other family members, in a bizarre scheme involving a personal shopper stealing expensive Armani suits from a Dayton's store.

Friedberg worked on more than 100 murder cases over the years, and his colleagues said he prided himself on building the best defense possible for clients. His firm, started in 1978, boasts a winning record of over 97% of felony sex cases and 89% of other types of cases, according to its website. He won several awards, including the Distinguished Service Award from the Minnesota Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and induction into the Minnesota Lawyers Hall of Fame.

Several Minnesota Vikings players hired Friedberg, including Randy Moss and Moe Williams, the latter for charges related to the Vikings "Love Boat" sex scandal on Lake Minnetonka in 2005. Norm Coleman retained Friedberg to represent him in his recount battle against Al Franken in 2009. He also represented Robert White, who pleaded guilty in 2011 to falsifying documents as part of a Ponzi scheme orchestrated by businessman Tom Petters.

Earl Gray, another defense attorney in Minnesota who is a close friend and worked on several cases with Friedberg, said he always admired his ability to win over skeptical jurors and judges.

"If there is a heaven, if they're reluctant on it and Joe can talk, he'll get in," Gray said. "There's no question about it. He'll talk his way in."

Joe Friedberg at a 2012 news conference.
Joe Friedberg at a 2012 news conference.

Stubbe, Glen, Star Tribune

Outside the courtroom, Friedberg was a doting husband to Carolyn, father to Mike and Andrea and grandfather of four. (He is preceded in death by another daughter, Lisa, who died as a child from cancer.) He loved animals and said in an interview he'd owned more than 100 race horses. Once, on his way to watch one of his horses race via simulcast at Canterbury Park, he and his wife stopped on Highway 62 to save a dog and her puppy running frantically on the roadway and matted with burrs and dirt. He also had a cat named Prince that roamed his downtown law office and lived well into its 20s.

Mike Friedberg said his father was diagnosed with colon cancer late last year. He described him as a consummate storyteller, sharp to the end.

"He had a million stories," said Mike Friedberg. "I'm 57 years old and he could still tell a story three weeks ago that I've never heard before."

Pacyga said the elder Friedberg was an "eternally generous, gentle soul who loved his family, loved his life, loved the profession" and who still had "fire in his belly" and worked until he died.

"More than just being an incredible lawyer, he was just a decent man," said Rivers. "He was good to his wife, his kids, his colleagues — I could always rely on him for anything."