He defended the infamous, won acquittals against long odds and was the face of his law firm on long-running television commercials.
Ron Meshbesher, for decades one of Minnesota’s most prominent defense attorneys, died Wednesday after a long bout with Alzheimer’s disease.
“The Defense Rests,” said a Facebook posting by Kim Meshbesher, his wife of 30 years. “May 18, 1933 — June 13, 2018.”
The legal “goliath” had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for some time and died at a memory care facility in Deephaven Wednesday. He was 85.
Meshbesher gained fame decades ago in sensational cases such as the 1972 Virginia Piper kidnapping and the 1977 murder of heiress Elisabeth Congdon. He retired in early 2014 after a 57-year career.
Kim Meshbesher said that on Wednesday, “I had left the room for a little bit to get something to eat, and 20 minutes after I returned he died. I believed he was waiting for me.”
Ken Meshbesher practiced law with his brother and recalled that they “were taught at home about justice” while growing up in north Minneapolis. “Father and Mother would see something wrong and say, ‘That’s not right.’ ”
Ken said his brother “always wanted to be a lawyer, as far back as I can think, 11 or 12 years old. We had one uncle who had money, and he said, “ ‘That’s what I want to be.’ ”
Once in law school at the University of Minnesota, Ron coaxed Ken into enrolling as well. Ron at one point was Ken’s teaching assistant, and, “I think he gave me my toughest grade.”
Ron was a master in the courtroom, winning over juries with wit and charm, his nephew Steven Meshbesher said. “He was like a poet, and juries loved him,” he said.
In an interview for the profession-rating service Super Lawyers in 2010, Meshbesher noted his respect for jurors and the American jury system, calling it “the most important part of our legal system. To have 12 people from all walks of life, who know nothing about the case, come in and make a decision is the right way to do it.”
Attorney Joe Friedberg said in an interview last fall that Ron Meshbesher prepared for trials “almost to a maniacal level. He was a fair competitor, straight-up with everybody. I don’t know anybody who disliked him.”
The Congdon murder case put Meshbesher’s legal talents on display in a soap opera of a true-crime tale in Duluth. On June 27, 1977, Congdon, an 83-year-old heiress who was partly paralyzed, was smothered with a satin pillow in her bedroom at the Glensheen mansion on the shore of Lake Superior. Her nurse Velma Pietila was found dead on the landing, bludgeoned with a brass candlestick.
Suspicion immediately fell on Congdon’s adopted daughter, Marjorie Caldwell, who was set to receive $8 million upon her mother’s death. Her husband, Roger Caldwell, was convicted and later signed a confession. With Meshbesher as her attorney, Marjorie was acquitted in one of Minnesota’s most riveting courtroom dramas.
In another famous case, Meshbesher won a not-guilty verdict for Ken Callahan, accused in the 1972 kidnapping of Virginia Piper, who was freed after her husband paid a $1 million ransom in $20 bills.
A nurturing mentor
James Gilbert was a law partner for 25 years and credits the mentoring he received from Meshbesher for his ability to earn a seat on the state Supreme Court, which he held from 1997 to 2004.
“He had a love of the law and took time to educate and help young lawyers as we joined the practice,” said Gilbert, who added that he was one of nine lawyers who landed state court seats after either being in the practice or sharing space at the office on Park Avenue in Minneapolis. “It didn’t matter how busy he was, he always took the time to nurture.”
Meshbesher was president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) in the mid-1980s. On Thursday, words of praise came quickly from others who held that post.
“For as long as I can remember, Minnesota had a reputation for turning out some of the finest litigators in the country, and Ron Meshbesher was a goliath among them,” said past NACDL President Gerald Goldstein. He said that upon meeting Meshbesher for the first time, “I was immediately struck by his strength, candor and gentle ability to lead his strong-willed and bullish colleagues that made up our organization.”
Prosecuting cases for the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office gave Meshbesher his start at age 24. The NACDL said he tried 45 felony cases in his three years there and had a 92 percent conviction rate. He moved to the defense side of criminal law in 1961, starting a private practice that grew in size, prominence and was widely marketed in television commercials for many years.
The retirement party for Meshbesher at the Lafayette Club in Minnetonka Beach was testament to how well regarded he was in legal circles. Among the 170 or so attending were judges and fellow attorneys, among them Peter Dorsey, Alan Page, Bruce Hartigan, Earl Gray, Donovan Frank, Michael Davis, Bill Sieben, Jack Nordby and brother Ken Meshbesher.
In addition to his wife and brother, Meshbesher is survived by daughters Jolie Meshbesher Hassler, Betsy Meshbesher, Wendy Meshbesher, and Stacy Meshbesher.
A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. June 28 at the Lafayette Club, 2800 Northview Road, Minnetonka Beach, with visitation at 1 p.m.
Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482