Slain lawyer remembered as fearless advocate for 'people no one else cared about'

Mark Stanziano, a prominent defense attorney based in Somerset, was shot Friday morning outside his office.
Mark Stanziano, a prominent defense attorney based in Somerset, was shot Friday morning outside his office. Lexington Herald-Leader

Evelyn Ball was poor, had a history of mental illness and was accused of killing a Whitley County man. She wasn't the kind of defendant many people cared about, but Mark Stanziano did.

The Somerset lawyer agreed to help defend Ball, who potentially faced the death penalty, just 30 days prior to her September 2006 trial. Ball was acquitted of all charges. Stanziano, during a bruising cross-examination of Ball's codefendant Loretta Evans, showed it was Evans who killed Edgar Perkins.

"It was amazing," said Brenda Popplewell, Stanziano's co-counsel in the Ball case. "Evelyn Ball was poor and innocent and he saved her life."

Stanziano's murder in front of his Somerset office Friday stunned Popplewell and the rest of Kentucky's legal community. Stanziano, 57, was one of the most prominent criminal defense lawyers in Kentucky, representing several high-profile defendants. The Kentucky Bar Association's Board of Governor's issued a statement Friday expressing its "profound grief" over the shooting.

Lawyers who knew him best said Friday that Stanziano was a fearless advocate for his clients who was dogged in his determination but always generous to his fellow lawyers.

"He cared about the people no one else cared about," Popplewell said. "He taught us all to speak truth to power."

Stanziano not only helped Popplewell with Ball's case on short notice, he didn't charge her, Popplewell said.

"He did it for free," she said. "I asked him to come into this case — a capital murder case — 30 days before trial. He worked day and night and he did it for free."

Ernie Lewis, the former Public Advocate for Kentucky who is now a lobbyist for the Kentucky Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, has known Stanziano for decades. Stanziano is a former president of the association and received its highest honor, the Frank E. Haddad, Jr. Award, in 2000, becoming the youngest lawyer to receive the honor.

"He was pretty fearless," Lewis said. "He hated injustice and he was not afraid to speak out against injustice."

Stanziano trained public defenders in both Kentucky and Ohio.

"He gave up a week of his time and he did it for free," Lewis said.

A graduate of Ohio State University and the University of Louisville law school, Stanziano worked in Ohio for eight years before moving to Somerset, where he practiced for 15 years. He moved to Minnesota in 2005 and worked for the Minnesota Public Defender system and returned full-time to Kentucky in 2008.

During the later part of his legal career, he concentrated mostly on potential death penalty cases. Most recently, he represented Kenneth Allen Keith, a preacher charged with the triple murder at Danville's ABC Gold Games and More in September.

Last year, Stanziano got an acquittal for a Wayne County man who was accused of murder after his 20-month-old son drank drain cleaner at a mobile home where people had allegedly been making methamphetamine. In a 2010 case, Stanziano won an acquittal for a woman who was accused of poisoning her grandfather.

Eddy Montgomery, commonwealth's attorney for Pulaski, Lincoln and Rockcastle counties, has faced Stanziano on many cases since 1996, including the assassination of Sheriff Sam Catron in 2002, in which Stanziano represented the shooter, Danny Shelley.

Montgomery said Stanziano fought hard for his clients, but always within the rules.

"He was always very professional. He always did his job," Montgomery said.

Montgomery said he could rely on what Stanziano told him as they worked opposite each other and negotiated pleas.

"He was always honest," Montgomery said.

Police knew they needed to be prepared when they faced questioning from Stanziano.

"He's a fierce defense attorney," said Capt. Shannon Smith of the Somerset police department. "He's passionate about his work."

"We are without question saddened by what happened," Smith said.

Jim Cox, a former public defender, met Stanziano when he first moved to Somerset more than two decades ago. He hired Stanziano when the public defender's office had a conflict of interest, thus beginning Stanziano's career as a criminal defense lawyer.

"He would take these cases for very little money," Jim Cox said. "But people were so impressed with him. He always took his cases to trial."

Stanziano took his work seriously, but he didn't take himself too seriously.

"He had an incredible sense of humor," said attorney Jerry Cox. "And he was a really, really good lawyer. ...This is just an incredible loss."

Stanziano's widow, Bethany L. Stanziano, released a statement Friday saying that her husband had always tried to help people — including the man charged with killing him.

Bethany Stanziano, who is an attorney, said she had lost her best friend, and the legal community lost a great mentor and teacher.

"Mark was always willing to help those in need. He believed in what he did," Bethany Stanziano said. "He believed in his fellow man. He saved so many lives."

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