URBANA — Champaign County lost one of its most colorful legal characters Wednesday.
Veteran defense attorney Brian Silverman of Champaign died in a Springfield hospital after a lengthy illness related to muscular dystrophy. He was 68.
"He could be very bombastic. We'll miss him terribly. He added so much life to things," said Champaign psychiatrist Larry Jeckel, whose work in forensic psychiatry was given a huge boost by Mr. Silverman when he was Champaign County's public defender.
"His greatest moment was in the Kathleen Johnson case when he had Dr. Szasz disqualified," said Jeckel.
Johnson was a 22-year-old wife and mother who in April 1983 brutally killed her 3-year-old and 23-month-old sons in the Orchard Downs apartment she shared with her husband in Urbana.
Jeckel said Mr. Silverman, her attorney, convinced Judge Harold Jensen that Dr. Thomas Szasz should not be allowed to testify.
"He was a famous psychiatrist who believed there was no such thing as mental illness and testified to that. Brian argued that he could not offer an opinion because he held a fixed, immutable position. It was priceless," said Jeckel, who testified on behalf of Johnson. Jensen acquitted her by reason of insanity.
Mr. Silverman was hired as Champaign County public defender in 1979, having worked seven years in the Cook County public defender's office, defending scores of accused murderers and other alleged felons.
Then-Champaign County Circuit Judge Bob Steigmann urged Mr. Silverman, a personal friend, to apply for the public defender's post. Steigmann has been on the Fourth District Appellate Court in Springfield since 1989 and has his office in a downtown Urbana building owned by Mr. Silverman, who also had his law office there for many years.
"He was the best I ever saw at cross-examining police officers and he gave the clientele of the public defender's office very good representation. He trained the people in his office well," said Steigmann.
Mr. Silverman hired Champaign County Judge Michael Jones for his first law job as an assistant public defender in 1979.
"He was also the best man at my wedding," Jones noted. "He was about as colorful a character as you're going to meet in the legal field."
Jones had great respect for Mr. Silverman's extemporaneous skills as a thinker and speaker.
"If your life depended on your lawyer, and there was a stipulation that the lawyer had to take a case totally unprepared, right away, he was the best lawyer you could have," Jones said. "He was the very best at thinking on his feet."
Jones said Mr. Silverman loved to talk, and to argue, and did so without rancor.
"His initials weren't BS for nothing," Jones said admiringly.
Urbana attorney Steve Beckett described Mr. Silverman as a "loveable guy who always had this manner that could rankle you. If you complimented him, he turned it into a criticism. But deep down he was a loveable, almost teddy bear kid of guy."
Presiding Judge Tom Difanis was state's attorney when Mr. Silverman was hired as public defender.
"I met him and he was loud and intimidating and brash and all the things you would expect from a Chicago public defender. He made us work," Difanis said.
"He turned our preliminary hearings into mini-trials and that's when I went to the grand jury," Difanis said of the system that does not allow for defense attorneys to be present when probable cause is established.
"After several years, I told him, 'Look, I haven't killed you yet so we might as well become friends.'"
Difanis, also a Chicago native, shared a loved of the Cubs with Mr. Silverman and the two often took trips to Wrigley Field with Jeckel.
Mr. Silverman's career was not without controversy. In 2007, the Illinois Supreme Court suspended his law license for nine months for "egregious" conduct toward two female clients.
Tom Bruno, a local attorney and Champaign City Council member, was a law student volunteering at Mr. Silverman's office when they met.
"We became close friends, in part because we both lost our fathers at an early age," Bruno said. "It was a real treat to know him because he had such strong feeling. If he was angry, he got really good and angry. When he laughed, he laughed from the heart. He was kind and gentle."
Defense attorney Jim Kuehl of Urbana said Mr. Silverman hired him as an assistant public defender in 1986. He recalled being Mr. Silverman's second chair in a 1987 trial where they were defending a man charged with murder.
Kuehl said Mr. Silverman often told the story of how he was second chair in an armed robbery trial in Cook County when his supervisor excused himself and never came back, leaving Mr. Silverman to handle the defense alone.
"Brian told that story so much that when we went to do this murder case, I wouldn't let him leave the courtroom," Kuehl said.
Mr. Silverman is survived by his wife of 35 years, Ilene. They have two children, Irit Silverman Hotle of Chicago and Eli Silverman of Baton Rouge. He also considered his wife's great-niece, Alexis Berns, to be a part of their immediate family. He is also survived by a sister, Cheryl Silverman of Tokyo.
Irit Silverman said community meant a lot to her father, who will be buried Friday in keeping with Jewish tradition.
Besides his law profession, Mr. Silverman served as a member of the Champaign-Urbana Cable Commission for many years. He ran unsuccessfully for public office as a circuit judge, state representative and University of Illinois trustee.
News-Gazette staff writer Paul Wood contributed to this report.