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Epilogue | Claude Hanks

Lawyer Claude Hanks overcame odds, championed his clients

ST. PETERSBURG — Claude Hanks always came to court in a well-tailored suit, a message that his clients deserved the highest regard.

He had memorized each juror's name and occupation. He could chat with jurors amiably, as if over a backyard fence. He could summon anger and indignation — or weep, if necessary, into the silk handkerchief that matched his tie.

Though he sometimes equated law with salesmanship, Mr. Hanks was anything but a cynic.

"Like all great trial lawyers, he had a passion for the cause," said his son, Mark Hanks, also a lawyer. "He would believe in these clients to no end. If they maintained their innocence, he believed they were innocent."

In the 1970s, he set up three legal clinics in the St. Louis area and established a form of representation based on legal insurance.

He retired in 1993 and moved to St. Petersburg, where he sold real estate. Mr. Hanks, who argued cases in nearly every state of the union and before the U.S. Supreme Court, died Jan. 26. He was 86.

Like his criminal clients, Mr. Hanks knew how it felt to be scorned and abandoned.

His father left the family before Mr. Hanks was born. As a child in St. Louis, he was shuffled between households of relatives who had little to offer except bare sustenance. A story he often told stands out in his son's memory.

"Once he and his stepbrother jointly got a red wagon for Christmas," said Mark Hanks, 48. "At the end of Christmas, his stepbrother got to keep the wagon and he got another home."

Still, "Deacon" Hanks excelled as a playmaking point guard on his high school basketball team. Thus began a pattern of setbacks and greater accomplishments that would follow him to the end.

Four years with the Navy during World War II, including cannon artillery duty, cost him a ring finger but earned a college education at St. Louis University and its law school.

Short $200 for his last semester of law school, Mr. Hanks tracked down his father and asked for a loan. His father refused, but a watchful priest paid the balance. He served a stint as a deputy attorney for the city of St. Louis, and later formed his own practice. For a time, he served as a municipal judge.

"In the 1960s and 1970s, he was the go-to guy if you killed somebody," his son said.

Mr. Hanks also specialized in copyright law, defending a producer of reissued records. The work led took him into courtrooms throughout the United States. He deposed musicians, including members of the Grateful Dead, winning most of those cases.

He also conquered some personal demons.

"On his own, and without professional treatment, he beat gambling, alcoholism, smoking and philandering," Mark Hanks said in a eulogy for his father.

But he had little defense against clients who misused his trust. There was, for example, a client who bought $30-a-month legal insurance from Mr. Hanks — then promptly killed his wife. "The guy did not get the death penalty," his son recalled. Neither did any of Mr. Hanks' other clients charged with murder over 38 years.

Twenty-five years ago, after previous marriages, Mr. Hanks found a lasting mate in the former Dean Martin. After moving to St. Petersburg in 1993, the couple danced beneath a disco ball in their home, on a parquet floor they had installed.

As a deacon at Fifth Avenue Baptist Church, he sang in the choir and manned the food pantry. He spent his last days at Bay Pines VA Medical Center, where he mused about maybe taking the Florida Bar exam.

Meanwhile, his son Mark and grandson Luke, 10, had heard a rumor about flickering lights seen by other families in the hospice wing. Some believed the lights were evidence of angels.

At 10:30 p.m. on Jan. 25, Mark Hanks recalled, "I said, 'If there is a spiritual presence in the room, would you please represent yourself by causing the lights to flicker?' "

As if in response, three candle-shaped wall sconces "expanded in luminosity to four times" their normal amount of light, he said.

"It happened right at the moment I said that," Hanks said. His father died six hours later.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or


Claude Hanks

Born: Dec. 5, 1924.

Died: Jan. 26, 2011.

Survivors: Wife Dean; daughter Sharon Bruemmer; son Mark Hanks and his wife Susa; stepsons Keith Gay and his wife Cathy, and Ken Gay; three grandchildren; and three stepgrandchildren.

Lawyer Claude Hanks overcame odds, championed his clients 02/05/11 [Last modified: Saturday, February 5, 2011 8:00pm]
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