Working Late: Attorney Cyril Ash, 91

Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman April 12, 2016 20:57

Attorney Cyril Ash

Nearly all his contemporaries retired years ago, trading courtrooms and plea negotiations for cruises and golf.

Not 91-year-old Cyril Ash: With 65 years of lawyering behind him and who knows how many ahead, Ash is a Calaveras County Superior Court regular.

As a contracted public defender for the past 20 years, he has represented defendants facing charges ranging from theft and drugs to child abuse, elder abuse and murder.

Although Ash left his contract job in September, he still maintains a private practice and accepts court appointments to represent criminal defendants.

Addicts, lies, broken families, violence and a client list which will never be mistaken for the Brady Bunch are all part of the rocky legal landscape for this affable Murphys-area resident.

“Those people need help, and I’m happy to give it to them,” explains Ash, enjoying a break from work at the home he shares with his wife, Ruth. Within minutes his phone rings, and his break is suddenly over.

“Well,” says Ash to a jailed client, “it seems you’re wanted in another county, and we’ll have to get that worked out before you’re free.”

As the conversation continues, Ruth rolls her eyes.

“We came here 25 years ago to play golf,” says Ash’s 79-year-old bride. “But it’s been months since we played together.”

Her husband runs his law business out of what was supposed to be their retirement haven. Between holdover public defender cases and his thriving private practice, he has more than 150 active case files. “It’s pretty close to 40 hours a week,” says Ash, whose phone consult just added 10 more minutes.

“Pretty close?” counters Ruth, also Ash’s legal secretary for nearly four decades. “It’s way over 40.”

That figure should dip as Cy works his way through pending cases. That’s good news for Ruth, but she’ll always revel in some of Ash’s stories – like the one about the guy accused of lunging at a female Calaveras County sheriff’s deputy and trying to grab her gun.

“I argued that my client was hallucinating, thought the deputy was his mother and was only going in for a hug,” deadpans Cy.

“And the guy was never convicted,” laughs Ruth, shaking her head in disbelief.

Maybe Ash’s talents can be traced to his first boss, flamboyant San Francisco lawyer and Sonora native Melvin Belli.

“I met him through a college friend,” recounts Ash, who earned both his undergrad and law degrees from the University of San Francisco. “Mel liked me and he hired me.”

Ash cut his teeth working for Belli’s firm, but more than a few afternoons were lost to that 1950s fixture – the three-martini lunch. “They were absolutely mandatory,” he recalls. “It got to the point where I switched from martinis to brandy because a bartender told me the hangover wasn’t nearly as bad.”

After a year with Belli, he moved to San Jose and hung his own shingle.

“Back then there were no public defenders, so members of the general bar were appointed to represent defendants who couldn’t afford to hire their own attorneys,” recounts Ash.

Accepting such assignments kept him more than busy. “I had scores of clients and was trying a criminal case every two weeks,” he remembers. “Later their children became my clients, with a variety of issues.”

His work ethic might have come from his dad, an oil company branch manager in San Francisco. Ash was a C student when his father asked him what he planned to do with his life. “To keep him happy, I picked lawyer,” says Cy.

Then Dad laid down the law, telling his only son to keep focused, avoid unnecessary classes and devote himself totally to his goal. Young Cyril did so, graduating from high school with honors and earning straight A’s at USF.

His undergraduate career was interrupted in 1943 by a three-year hitch in the Army Air Corps, where he was a squadron photographer at several West Coast bases before being transferred to Okinawa as World War II ended.

Then it was back to college and on to USF’s law school. In 1950, he received his degree, passed the bar and went to work. After a year of solo practice in San Jose, Ash was earning $750 a month.


Ash after a 1944 mission over the Mojave Desert

As the years went by his caseload mounted, and so did his income. In the 1960s, he moved to a seven-story office building on San Jose’s First Street, married, had three children, divorced, took up golf and bought a Cessna 182.

“Not only did I enjoy flying, but having a plane allowed me to take cases all around the state,” says Ash, a licensed pilot since 1954.

He didn’t have to fly to meet the love of his life, though he was a couple of stories off the ground at the time.

“We met in an elevator,” explains Ruth, who worked as a secretary in the same building and had heard about the handsome and available Ash from a friend. “So I say good morning, and he just stares at the floor and mumbles. I’m thinking, ‘What a jerk.’ ”

“Well, I’ve always been pretty shy,” explains Ash, adding that he becomes “a different person” in the courtroom. “But I persevered. She worked right across the hall, and I went over and asked her to lunch.”

“And we’ve been having lunch together ever since,” says Ruth, who married Cy on Valentine’s Day 1976 and went to work as her new husband’s secretary the next year.

In the years that followed, Cy gave Ruth both a set of golf clubs and flying lessons, hoping to interest her in his own passions. She was not receptive.

“What am I supposed to do with these?” she said of the golf clubs. And those flying lessons? “I was not enthusiastic,” Ruth remembers, “but after one lesson I said, ‘This is for me!’ ”

She became an enthusiastic pilot and avid golfer who’d often play hooky to hit the links. “I don’t know how many times I told clients that my secretary’s out playing golf again,” laughs Ash.

Golf, it turns out, brought the couple to Calaveras County. In 1990, just a week after enjoying their first visit to the Forest Meadows course, they bought a house in the Calaveras County subdivision.

“Did we just do that?” asked Cy at the time. “We did,” Ruth replied. After all, Cy was 66 and had practiced law for 40 years. Wasn’t it time to retire?

Not really.


Ruth and Cyril Ash at home

He missed the law, and when a fellow Calaveras County lawyer told Cy of a part-time job that might keep him busy “two or three hours a week,” he went for it. In 1995, as a “conflict public defender,” he represented second defendants in cases where multiple suspects were charged.

For a time the job really was a few hours a week, but his caseload mounted. Of late, most of his work has been Child Protective Services cases in which a husband and wife are accused of abusing or neglecting their children. Invariably, these cases involve drugs – most often methamphetamines – and violence.

“It’s a challenge,” admits Cy, “and the clients themselves can be a challenge.”

But typically, he says, CPS cases are resolved with plea bargains conditioned on the defendants completing drug rehab programs and parenting classes.

“Most regain custody of their children,” Ash adds, “and a lot of them turn their lives around. The possibility of losing your children can be a powerful incentive.”

Over the years, his caseload has been spiced with high-profile criminal cases (see Tragic, fascinating cases that made news) and that’s when Ash is in his element – assessing juries, presenting evidence and planting doubts. “I love trying cases. I think I’m pretty good at it,” he says. “Also, I seem to have a talent for hanging juries.”

His last eight trials? One conviction, one acquittal, six hung juries.

“I tell my clients, guilty or not guilty, that they’re going to get the best defense I can give them,” says Ash. “But if they are guilty, I want to know about it in advance, and I can work from there.”

And, yes, he has won acquittal for numerous clients he’s known to be guilty. “It doesn’t bother me a bit,” says Ash.

“I am obligated to provide the best case possible, to give them every right they’re entitled to under the law.”

So do his freed clients emerge thinking they can get away with anything? “Not really,” adds Ash. “Coming that close to conviction gets them thinking that they better not do that again.”

How do defendants facing years in prison feel after discovering that their court-appointed attorney is on the far side of 90? “Well, I think they’re fine with it,” laughs Ash. “So far, none of them have asked for another lawyer.”

And after all, how many attorneys come into a case with 65 years of experience?

It’s a good question, but one the State Bar of California could not answer. According to the Bar, only about 1,500 of the state’s more than 250,000 lawyers are 91 or older. That’s roughly half of 1 percent, but it’s also highly misleading.

“That figure includes both active and inactive attorneys,” says State Bar spokeswoman Amy Yarbrough. “We don’t have the breakdown, but almost all of those 91 or older are probably retired.”

This puts Ash in rarefied air. That he’s still a player in the gloves-off, rough-and-tumble world of criminal defense makes that air even thinner.

“Cyril Ash is an excellent, excellent attorney,” says Doug Mewhinney, who as a Calaveras County Superior Court judge saw Ash try dozens of cases. “He’s old school. He doesn’t raise his voice, showboat or try to trick people, but he’ll leave no stone unturned in defending his clients.”

“He doesn’t have to do it,” adds Mewhinney, who himself retired at 60 in 2012 after 34 years as a prosecutor and judge. “He does it out of a love of the law and an obligation to protect the rights of his clients.”

Some might imagine Ash to be one dimensional, spending his life in courtrooms with his head buried in law books.

Don’t tell that to Ruth, who suffered a stroke in 2014 while visiting her granddaughter in San Francisco. She spent a week in the hospital and several months recovering at home, where Cyril took care of her, cooked all her meals and drove her to therapists’ and doctors’ appointments.

“He’s the kindest human being I’ve ever known,” says Ruth, now nearly fully recovered. “In 40 years, he’s never raised his voice.”

Although the Ashes gave up flying the Cessna, Ruth is still an avid golfer and hopes Cy can rejoin her on the links now that he is no longer a contracted public defender. They also make time to travel and to visit their seven grown children from previous marriages, seven grandchildren and on Cy’s side, two great-grandchildren.

But, as Ruth is Cy’s legal secretary, their conversation inevitably returns to the law, and on this day, Judge Mewhinney’s name comes up.

“Now he’s my kind of judge,” says Ruth. “He had a simple philosophy: You do the crime, you serve the time.”

So is that Cy’s view as well?

“Well, sure,” he says with a grin. “Unless I can get you off.”


Tragic, fascinating cases that made news

A look at a few of Cyril Ash’s high-profile cases:

Death by sitting

Perhaps the most sensational of Ash’s Bay Area cases was that of a 220-pound woman charged in 1983 with killing her 8-year-old autistic son by sitting on him for two hours.

Ash won acquittal by arguing that a counselor had told the woman that sitting on her occasionally overwrought boy was an effective way to calm him. “It was the only verdict they could reach,” Ash told reporters after jurors cleared the woman of manslaughter.

The woman later won a $50,000 award in a civil suit against the counselor and his firm, Ash says.

Black-powder killer

Ash’s client, a 41-year-old Arnold man, was charged in 2003 with first-degree murder after shooting another man with a black-powder pistol in a dispute over how the deceased treated a woman. The victim’s body was found in White Pines.

In high-profile proceedings marked by conflicting testimony and intense emotion, the defendant eventually pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and received a 10-year sentence. He has since been released from prison.

Ash held that the wildly conflicting testimony made proving the case virtually impossible and that there was no justification for a murder charge.

“My client went to the victim’s house only to talk,” he says. “And after the shooting, the woman involved helped him hide the body. In all my years of practice, it’s the most fascinating case I’ve ever come across.”

The driver who wasn’t 

A 19-year-old Hathaway Pines man was charged with vehicular manslaughter in 2004 after allegedly crashing his father’s car into a ditch near Arnold and killing two passengers.

Ash countered in court that another teen in the car had been behind the wheel. Supported by several witnesses,    his theory was enough to hang a jury in 2006 and led to dismissal of charges in 2008.

Although tests later revealed that the other teen’s blood was on the driver’s-side seat, says Ash, “he was never prosecuted.”

The defense attorney’s only regret: “I moved to have my client released from jail four times, but was denied each time. He spent over a year in jail for something he didn’t do.”

‘Rotting in bed’ 

That’s how a judge described the victim of a 2005 Valley Springs elder abuse and neglect case. Deputies found the 91-year-old woman naked in bed, riddled with sores and covered in bugs and rodent feces. Charged were the woman’s son, 55, and his wife, 52.

Representing the wife, Ash waived a preliminary hearing. “In a case like this, the less exposure the better,” he told reporters at the time.

Ash argued that his client had no criminal record, had called authorities to seek help for her mother-in-law and was constantly pushed and hit by the Alzheimer’s-suffering older woman while trying to provide care.

His client pleaded guilty and was sentenced to four years in prison, three years less than her husband.

The mad millionaire

Charged in 2009 with illegal possession of firearms and allowing his buffalo to roam off his property – the animal then gored a neighbor – a profane and combative real-estate millionaire was no fun for Ash to defend.

During a pretrial hearing, the 80-year-old Rail Road Flat man assaulted his attorney in court. “He didn’t want the continuance or something,” Ash, then 85, told a reporter.

“I just hope he doesn’t explode again.”

The attack only bolstered arguments that the defendant was unfit for trial. He was sent to a Sacramento facility for evaluation and treatment.

Copyright © 2015 Friends and Neighbors Magazine


Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman April 12, 2016 20:57
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