Mo. Kidnap Case Challenges Young Lawyers
By CHERYL WITTENAUER
ST. LOUIS – The two young lawyers who have taken on the defense of alleged child abductor Michael Devlin are eager but they’re being seen as underdogs in a costly and complex case.
Ethan Corlija, 32, and his 33-year-old law partner, Michael Kielty, are relatively unknown even within the clubby world of St. Louis lawyers.
“If you had said ‘do I know these guys?’ I’d have said ‘I have no clue,’” said Chet Pleban, who’s practiced criminal law in St. Louis for 33 years.
Some of the city’s leading criminal lawyers wonder if they have sufficient experience and resources to mount a proper defense in a case where every legal step will be scrutinized.
Corlija and Kielty are undeterred.
“We’re young. We’re very intelligent. We have stamina and we’ll be aggressive and zealous in the defense of our client’s rights,” Corlija said.
Devlin is the 41-year-old pizzeria manager charged with kidnapping 11-year-old Shawn Hornbeck in 2002 and 13-year-old Ben Ownby Jan. 8, both from rural areas of eastern Missouri. Both boys were found in Devlin’s apartment in the St. Louis suburb of Kirkwood Jan. 12.
The case figures to be costly and complex to defend in light of two empathetic victims. It doesn’t help that authorities claim Devlin admitted abducting Ben.
“The evidence is going to be overwhelming,” said Arthur Margulis, a criminal lawyer here for 35 years. “This is not a whodunit. … The odds of achieving a satisfactory result are very remote.”
The pair face cases that will be tried separately in two counties. Federal charges also are possible, and a special task force is looking at six other cases of missing or murdered children to see if Devlin could have been involved.
Corlija and Kielty won’t say who is paying them or how much. Some lawyers have estimated Devin’s defense will cost at least $250,000.
Corlija, practicing law since 2001, has represented licensing boards for the Missouri attorney general, and prosecuted some felony cases for St. Louis County.
Kielty interned with the St. Charles County prosecutor’s office before graduating from law school in 1999. He clerked, worked for a private attorney, then got his own shingle in 2000. He said he’s had 18 felony jury trials.
The two met at Saint Louis University School of Law and have been law partners only since 2005. They work from a stylish but understated Art Deco building in suburban Clayton. Corlija came from St. Louis, Kielty from suburban St. Charles.
Kielty is an extrovert who talks easily. Corlija is reflective, deliberate and meticulous.
“I’m an in-your-face lawyer,” Kielty said. He said his partner “won’t let a single theory go uncontemplated. … I can’t believe how well he’s done. The kid’s a rainmaker.”
Their connection with Devlin began the night of his arrest, when Corlija got a call.
“It was the family, and they said ‘Our brother is in a lot of trouble,’” he recalled. A lawyer friend of the Devlin family had recommended him.
Corlija met with Devlin for two hours that night in the Franklin County Jail. Kielty cut short a trout fishing trip in Arkansas and headed back to St. Louis at daybreak in a snowstorm.
By Jan. 15, they were on “Larry King Live,” followed the next day by “Anderson Cooper 360.” By week’s end, following a barrage of media calls, they retained a publicist. They have been putting in 16-hour days, seven days a week.
The attorneys were upset that images of Devlin in an orange jumpsuit during his video arraignment from jail were shared with the national media. The court had honored their request that no cameras be allowed in the courtroom, but Franklin County authorities allowed the media to get images from the court video linkup.
They also were caught off guard by The New York Post’s publication of a freelance reporter’s jailhouse interviews with Devlin last month, and accused the jail of poor security.
Asked how they would compensate for their youth and relative lack of experience, Kielty said they have learned lessons from other local defense lawyers.
Chief among those lessons, “preparation and a masterful knowledge of the facts and the law,” Corlija said. “There’s no substitute for that.”