Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Above all else, Joseph McDermott was a champion for defendants' rights

ST. PETE BEACH — Joe McDermott believed every defendant accused of a crime deserved his very best.

For 47 years, that's exactly what he gave them.

Known to colleagues as "the Cocky Buffalo" for his courtroom demeanor, he championed the rights of people accused of murder and rape, and represented more than 50 defendants eligible for the death penalty.

"He always said you don't judge them by the allegations," said Frank McDermott, 42, Mr. McDermott's son and law partner. "You represent them to make sure the process is fair. To do anything less would be a disgrace to the oath you took as an attorney."

Mr. McDermott died on Sunday of kidney failure and congestive heart failure. He was 75.

"I have no doubt that he is one of the longest-serving defense lawyers in Pinellas County," said Senior Judge Susan Schaeffer, who shared a row of offices with Mr. McDermott in the 1970s and looked to him as an ethical mentor.

An accountant's son, Mr. McDermott grew up in St. Petersburg and graduated from St. Pete High in 1951. He met his future wife, Patricia, at St. Petersburg Junior College, where peers voted him "most humorous" of their class.

After graduating from the University of Florida law school, he joined the Pinellas County Public Defender's Office in 1961, a clean-cut era when his full beard was considered unusual.

"One of the things I appreciated about Joe was that he was very practical," said retired Circuit Judge Robert Beach. "He cut away the chaff and got right to the meat of the coconut."

Robert Morris, chief judge of the Sixth Judicial Circuit, called Mr. McDermott "the kind of lawyer who only comes around once in a lifetime."

"Joe McDermott was recognized by the judges here in the courthouse and attorneys as the dean of the criminal bar," Morris said.

In 1968, Mr. McDermott stepped down as chief assistant public defender to go into private practice.

"I spent seven happy years representing the indigent and the oppressed until I became one myself," he told the Times in 1970. "Now it's time to make a buck."

Speaking in a low, gravely voice, Mr. McDermott pounded away at the state's cases. If his client and someone else were accused, it was the other guy's idea. If there was evidence, it was only circumstantial. If the client admitted it, the act still wasn't premeditated. If the client faced the death penalty, he would argue for life in prison and usually get it.

In one of his most famous cases, Mr. McDermott represented Lorenzo Jenkins in the 1993 shooting death of a Belleair police officer. A judge sentenced Jenkins to death, but the Florida Supreme Court overturned it, and Jenkins got a life sentence instead.

"Joe practiced law the way lawyers are supposed to," said Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Jack Helinger. "He cared, he advocated for his clients, and he did it with the utmost class and professionalism."

Life did not begin and end with the law, even if it sometimes seemed that way. Mr. McDermott loved to fish and take his family to spots such as Egmont Key, Cedar Key or Gasparilla Island. He built entire village scenes, each about 6 to 8 feet long, out of driftwood, bits of copper, pieces of fishing net and rusted tin.

He also penned three courtroom novels but could not find a publisher. He was to attend a writers conference later this year to market his latest manuscript, Lethal Injection. He did all this while continuing to work. Hours before he died, Mr. McDermott asked his son to brief him on the firm's newest cases.

"He wanted to know what we had done on them," said Frank McDermott. "Were we on top of it? Had motions been filed? Had deadlines been met?"

"He wanted to stay at it and keep active to the end, and that's what he did," Helinger said. "Those were his golden years."

Andrew Meacham can be reached at or (813) 661-2431.


Joseph F. McDermott

Born: May 13, 1933.

Died: Jan. 26, 2009.

Survivors: wife, Patricia; sons, Todd and Frank; daughters, Beth and Michelle; sister, Jeannie Ohle; brother, Robert McDermott; eight grandchildren; two great-grandchildren.

Celebration of Life: 11 a.m. Wednesday; Brett Funeral Home, 4810 Central Ave., St. Petersburg.

Above all else, Joseph McDermott was a champion for defendants' rights 01/26/09 [Last modified: Monday, January 26, 2009 11:06pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Tonight: Hear ideas for remaking downtown Tampa interchange


    TAMPA — New concepts for rebuilding the downtown interchange will be discussed at a Florida Department of Transportation community meeting Monday night.

    The Florida Department of Transportation renamed its controversial Tampa Bay Express plan, also known as TBX. The plan is now known as Tampa Bay Next, or TBN. [Florida Department of Transportation]
  2. Did you watch the second episode of 'Star Trek: Discovery'? Or just the first?


    CBS finally, finally, finally premiered its long-awaited new Star Trek series Discovery on Sunday night, albeit a bit delayed after 60 Minutes.

    Michelle Yeoh and Sonequa Martin-Green play the captain and first officer of the Shenzhou.
  3. Rick Scott's office deleted critical messages related to post-hurricane nursing home deaths

    As Florida continues to pick up the pieces in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, more confusion builds around the 11 heat-related deaths at a South Florida nursing home following the storm earlier this month.

    Police surround the Rehabilitation Center in Hollywood Hills, Fla., which had no air conditioning after Hurricane Irma knocked out power. Several patients at the sweltering nursing home died in the storm's aftermath. [John McCall | South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP]
  4. J.T. Brown of Lightning respects NFL players' protests


    There was something in the air in the NFL on Sunday. President Trump’s comments and tweets on NFL player protests achieved the effect of creating more of them. Lightning winger J.T. Brown was asked about it as he stood in a hall at Amalie Arena, a few hours before the Lightning played the Florida Panthers in …

    J.T. Brown, one of about 30 African-American players in the National Hockey League, would not rule out that he might protest.
  5. Top things to do in Tampa Bay for the week of Sept. 25-Oct. 1


    MegaCon Tampa: The multi-genre convention brings a lineup of celebrity guests and comic book creators to the Tampa Convention Center Friday-Sunday, including icon Stan Lee, William Shatner, above, Kevin Smith and Gaten Matarazzo and Caleb McLaughlin from Stranger Things. Shop hundreds of vendors selling …

    Courtesy Adultswim