True character of the court celebrated

Steve Braunias takes a look back on the colourful career of lawyer Eb Leary as he was farewelled yesterday.

He loved smoking Rothmans cigarettes and drinking Mount Gay rum, but only ever to happy excess. He knew that moderation was the road to hell. Eb Leary died last week. He was 71. He led a full, kind of crazy life - "elaborate", as his sister Caroline Main put it at his funeral service yesterday afternoon at St Mary's-in-Holy Trinity Cathedral in Parnell, where he was celebrated as one of the great characters in New Zealand criminal law.

In truth, there aren't that many great characters in New Zealand criminal law. The legal fraternity was out in force at the cathedral, in their cufflinks and collars, obedient barristers as well as three High Court judges and former attorney-general Paul East. They sweated in the heat, they fanned themselves with the Order of Service. They came to pay their respects to a master.

"Eb was fascinated with the art of advocacy," said barrister Mark Edgar.

"I always remember him telling me that he went to see Billy Graham, the American evangelist, when he came to New Zealand and spoke at rallies. Eb went every night for a week, just to study him.

The power of advocacy, you see; he didn't care what Graham was saying, it was the performance. He said Graham was magnetic. Riveting. You couldn't take your eyes off him.

"Eb was like that, too. There was one time he was cross-examining a witness in the old Magistrates' Court in Kitchener St. He ridiculed this guy. It was a destructive cross-exam, and people were hooting with laughter. Everyone was on his side. Eventually - and this was so poignant - the witness started laughing, too, out of fear. It was just the sheer power Eb had."

Eb was fascinated with the art of advocacy.
Barrister Mark Edgar

Justice Charles Cato knew Leary for 40 years. He was a judge's clerk when he first came across him. He said, "The court staff used to rush into the courtroom whenever he was giving a closing address."

Old men sweat a lot. Some of the characters at the funeral looked as though they'd been fished out of the sea. There were women in pearls, and there was one of the wildest men in Auckland - Paul Smith, who owns Swashbucklers, one of the city's least pretentious bars and subsequently one of the happiest. He was at law school with Leary, and they remained friends over drinks. "Saw him in hospital once," he said. "I went to visit my mum and there he was, too. They were both pissed on gin."

There was one of the prosecutors from the Kim Dotcom extradition hearing last year, and there was a chap old enough to remember Leary's father Leonard, a much-admired criminal defence lawyer in his day - he did the sensational 1934 double-murder trial of Bill Bayly, who was hanged. As Eb Leary once said to his sister, "You win a few, you lose a few."

He made that remark on the night she phoned to say how sorry she was that he'd been disbarred. Leary was devastated, but kept calm; 20 years later, he was readmitted to the bar. He had to fight to get his ticket back: "Thin-lipped, mean-eyed legal buzzards didn't want Eb back in the fold," his sister said at his service.

Chaplain Ann Mellor ushers in Hells Angels members to the funeral service. Photo / Greg Bowker
Chaplain Ann Mellor ushers in Hells Angels members to the funeral service. Photo / Greg Bowker

His fall from grace was connected to dealings with his client Terry Clark, head of the Mr Asia drug syndicate. A ghost from that past was keeping a low profile at the service. He kept to himself, but he rather stood out in his cowboy hat and long beard. He looked like an interesting character, which is to say he looked like a crook. He was 67. He gave his name as Lugs. He said, "I knew Terry Clark. I was in that whole scene. I got 7 years for importing an ounce and a bit of 94.8 per cent pure heroin. Eb defended me and I want to tell you this: he was a f****** amazing bloke. He was straight-up and honest."

What about Terry Clark? "He was a narc. He was also a killer. A mad-dog killer. I knew his two victims. They deserved what they got. Boom-boom."

Well, you can't have a send-off for a criminal lawyer without criminals. Next to Lugs, the six Hells Angels who turned up seemed rather tame. "He was not only my lawyer," said one of the Angels, Phil Schubert, " he was my friend. Excellent joker."

There were lifelong friends, old boys who were at school with Leary at King's, such as Rod Rodwell, a fairly belligerent rooster who said, "Eb was the kindest and most generous man who ever walked on the planet ... What you write had better be good."

Another old chap, even more bellicose, approached to share his steadfast opinion that Leary was a saint. Leary's sister Caroline tugged at the reporter's elbow. "Don't listen to him," she hissed. "He's a half-wit."

Death is death but the thought occurred that if there was some part of us that remains, Eb Leary would be raising a toast, and laughing.

- NZ Herald

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