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‘The Tripper’ scores G. Arthur Martin Medal

|Written By Gretchen Drummie

David Humphrey made a public confession last month to his colleagues in the Criminal Lawyers’ Association. It was just before the prestigious G. Arthur Martin Medal was presented to his dad:

Toronto lawyer David Humphrey and his father retired Superior Court justice David Humphrey.

“I know the seven deadly sins and I intend - in fact I must admit - that today I’m guilty of one of them. Pride.”

With that, David Humphrey - the son - launched into a rollicking rendition of the life and times of David Humphrey Sr. - the father - in a speech that delivered more than a few extraordinary tidbits about a man who for 50 years served the administration of criminal justice, first, as a Crown attorney, then a formidable defence lawyer, and finally as a respected Superior Court judge.

Turns out, Humphrey, 83, may have retired in 1999, but he’s not forgotten. The awards luncheon was oversold, and a long list of justice system “bold faces” squeezed into the room. In fact, it was revealed that a large portion of them got their starts as law students in their mentor’s office.

And here’s something else: Humphrey Sr. is the guy, who, along with his partner and friend, retired Superior Court justice Hugh Locke, who hatched that very CLA 20 years ago in their offices at 3 Sultan St. They did it so the criminal lawyers would get some “respect,” as the erudite Locke not-so-subtly put it, to a vigorous applause.

“David Humphrey provided that respect. That is why he is deserving of this medal,” said Locke.  

 Humphrey told the crowd his father started his career working for Charles Dubin at the great salary of $15 a week; he joked that Dubin said, “He was overpaid.” Humphrey Sr. was called to the bar in 1950, became a Crown

attorney, and had friendships with the best lawyers of his day, including Arthur Maloney, Joe Sedgwick, J.J. Robinette, Henry Bolt, and Arthur Martin. Humphrey said his dad practised at a time when “Crown and defence lawyers regularly socialized, even in the middle of hotly contested and hard-fought cases.” It was a time of  “greater collegiality at the bar.”

After sharpening his skills over four years of prosecuting, Humphrey Sr. went into private practice in the “fledgling firm Humphrey Locke.”

Not surprisingly, Humphrey Sr. and Locke did something different; they gave up renting in downtown Toronto and bought a midtown brownstone where they hung out a shingle, and created a “group that was as much law family as it was law firm,” said Humphrey.

Locke said it was based on a handshake. “There was never a disagreement. In fact, from that day on I could hardly wait to get to work.”

“Today, my father would probably say his greatest satisfaction in the practice of law is not in the big cases he won, or the legal precedents he helped to set,” said Humphrey. “He would say it’s in the bonds of friendship that he formed with all of the fine lawyers and law students who have worked at 3 Sultan St.”

Locke said there’s a “bulging drawer of Humphrey stories” that could be told. Here’s a taste: one day, “Patty Kane called out, ‘Mr. Humphrey, the law society auditors are here to audit your books. It’s a spot audit.’ Being quick on the uptake, Humphrey’s voice came back down the hall, ‘That’s terrific Patty. Order them a coffee and take it out of the trust account.’”

Humphrey said that one of his dad’s first big cases was the defence of Robert Fitton, who

sexually assaulted and strangled Linda Lambkin, 13, on Jan. 18, 1956. Humphrey Sr. took on the unpopular capital punishment case pro bono. In 10 months it went from the arrest to execution.

“It is not only to his personal credit but to the credit of defence lawyers generally that Dave Humphrey took on a capital case, an appeal, and a further appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada all for no fee,” said Humphrey. “He paid all the disbursements personally.”

But, in a humorous footnote, he said Humphrey Sr. was on the sidelines at the 1957 Grey Cup game in Varsity Stadium. At one point he looked up and spied the foreman of the Fitton jury in the stands, whom he heard pressured the other jurors into a verdict of capital murder, said Humphrey.

“This brought a flood of dark memories. He felt the need for a stiff drink, or two. Fortuitously he just happened to have a full flask of whiskey with him. It seems that the alcohol overstimulated my father’s sense of humour.”

Hamilton player Ray “Bibbles” Bawel intercepted a pass, ran up the sidelines for a certain touchdown, and “as he passed my father, my father thought it would be funny to stick out his leg and trip him, which he did,” said Humphrey. Ever since, Humphrey Sr. has been called “The Tripper.”

Humphrey said part of what made his dad “an exceptional advocate was his recognition that great advocacy requires tailoring tactics to the circumstances of the case. Sometimes it requires descending into meticulous details. Other times it favours giving the opposing case a dismissive back of the hand.”

He said that’s best illustrated in a rape trial Humphrey Sr. had before a jury; a case of he said, she said. He feared that perhaps a conventional closing with a review of the evidence might lend some weight to the Crown’s case. “Although he was uncertain whether the jury had warmed up to his client, he was confident that they had warmed up to him.

“He always established a rapport with the jury. He was likeable, plain-spoken, and self-effacing. And he won over juries and judges with his trademark humour.

In this case he decided that he would cash in on his goodwill with the jury using a bold stroke, and allow me to quote his closing address in its entirety: ‘Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, if this is a case of rape, then I’m a monkey’s uncle. And although the resemblance is amazing, I ain’t.’ With that he sat down, and the case was won.”

But, Humphrey said, perhaps his father’s greatest skill was his “natural ability to conduct devastating cross-examinations.

In this regard I can tell you I’m not just relying on the reports of others. I can attest to his skills personally as a cross-examiner,” he said, revealing he dreaded hearing his mother say, “Wait until your father gets home. . . .  He took particular delight in catching me in prior inconsistent statements. He would mock the implausibilities in my story.”

Humphrey added if  “the Martin Medal was given for excellence as a raconteur, Dave Humphrey would’ve been its first recipient.”

But, while he gained much from the profession, Humphrey Sr. gave back by volunteering for continuing legal education programs and serving 12 years as a bencher.

And he distinguished himself in 15 years as a judge. He “gave himself the moniker ‘Merciful Dave.’ There are some who think that nickname is facetious. Those people may be thinking about some of the firm sentences he did impose. But the firm sentences were reserved for serious crimes and seasoned criminals,” said Humphrey.

“If there was someone before him who had a sympathetic story or who just deserved a break, he’d give it.”

Humphrey added he learned that during a particular period of time the Crown was appealing more sentences “imposed by my father than any other judge. Merciful Dave was indeed merciful; he was just selective.”

These days, Humphrey said that while his father is no longer on the bench, he’s still holding court.

To prove the point, Humphrey Sr. took over the microphone to a standing ovation.

“I had the most wonderful career of my life as a defence counsel, as a Crown attorney, and as a judge,” he told the room. “Just wonderful. We had a lot of students who now have become judges and notable people in the profession.

I had Crown attorneys that were sometimes too tough, unlike my daughter Mary [Humphrey, a Toronto prosecutor] who is very reasonable, but they never convicted an innocent person . . . I believe.”

Then, Humphrey Sr. gave some advice to the crowd: “When you’re retired as I am, you’ll look back on your lifestyle and I hope you can say, as I have said, it was a wonderful time.”

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