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‘Psychobabble’ lawyer Ellis Rubin dies at 81

Longtime defense attorney Ellis Rubin, originator of such defenses as television intoxication leading to murder and nymphomania as prostitution's cause in a frequently unorthodox five-decade legal career, died Tuesday at 81.
Ellis Rubin, Lionel Tate
Attorney Ellis Rubin, left, and his client  Lionel Tate discuss Tate's plea before a court hearing in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in this March 1 file photo. Rubin died Tuesday at the age of 81.Mike Stocker / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Longtime defense attorney Ellis Rubin, originator of such defenses as television intoxication leading to murder and nymphomania as prostitution's cause in a frequently unorthodox five-decade legal career, died Tuesday at 81.

His law firm said he died early Tuesday at his Miami home.

Rubin had battled cancer for more than six years, recently issuing a farewell statement from a Miami Beach hospital bed. But he remained active in his legal practice until nearly the end, winning his last case when he got a judge to rule that a Reform Party candidate for governor should be permitted in a gubernatorial debate.

Rubin starred in the nation's first televised trial in 1977, launched a crusade against federal and Florida laws banning gay marriage, helped lift the TV blackout of NFL games, pioneered a battered woman's defense in Florida and helped free an innocent black man imprisoned for 21 years in his family's killing.

"Love him or hate him, Ellis was a truly unique fixture on the legal scene for many years," said Miami criminal defense attorney Richard Sharpstein. "If you're caught with your pants down and the murder weapon in your hand, Ellis is someone with something to say."

More recently, he represented convicted child-killer Lionel Tate but left the case in a disagreement over a plea bargain. In November, he got Aimee Lee Weiss off on probation in the 2001 death of her newborn son after successfully challenging her statement to police, leading prosecutors to drop murder charges.

Defender of lost causes
Rubin was disliked by many fellow lawyers who believed he tarnished the image of the profession with headline-grabbing lawsuits and screwy defenses that often failed or petered out. He defended lost causes, to excess in the view of some, as he took on more than 5,000 civil and criminal cases.

Ronny Zamora, defendant in the first televised trial, was 15 when he killed an 83-year-old neighbor during a robbery at her Miami Beach home. He claimed Rubin's insanity defense blaming exposure to TV violence was ineffective, but a federal appeals court noted the focus on the role of television in the open-and-shut case allowed in evidence used to Zamora's advantage.

Rubin offered a nymphomania defense for prostitute Kathy Willets, whose sheriff's deputy-husband videotaped her sexual encounters with politicians and police from their bedroom closet. The case was the subject of one of two autobiographical books co-authored by Rubin.

Pasco Circuit Judge Wayne Cobb, who dealt with Rubin in the case of a confessed serial killer, said in 1993 that the lawyer was "famous for his psychobabble defenses."

The Syracuse, N.Y.-native exploited a willing news media and built his own soapbox as a perennially unsuccessful candidate for state office. He frequently telephoned reporters with updates to his high-profile cases and held news conferences often at is Miami law office.

But Rubin had an ethical standard that put him at odds with the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused in 1987 to allow him to drop a murder defendant when he knew the man would lie on the stand. In what Rubin considered his "proudest moment," he served a 37-day jail sentence for contempt rather than stay on the case.

Made the Navy back down
The former Navy commander took on the Pentagon in a 1989 turret explosion that killed 47 seaman aboard the battleship USS Iowa in one of the Navy's highest peacetime death tolls. The Navy withdrew a report implicating a blast victim and survivor in an intentional act when the cause may have been accidental.

Rubin's politics changed with the times. He backed former beauty queen Anita Bryant's anti-gay rights crusade in the late 1970s but decided he was wrong and launched a series of lawsuits in 2004 challenging the ban on gay marriage. Those were later dropped.

As a communist-chasing assistant state attorney general in 1954, he wrote a report for the governor on subversive activities in Florida, tracking Communist Party members.

"Unlike most lawyers today, his primary motivation is not money. He just loves what he does," said Robert Barrar, Rubin's partner since 1996. Aside from practicing with his sons earlier, Rubin worked alone for most of his career.

"I sympathize with the poor and the powerless who don't have a voice," Rubin said in a 2002 interview.

He was survived by his wife Barbara, four children and seven grandchildren.

His funeral is scheduled for Thursday.