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The defense rests, as an exceptional attorney with deep Tampa roots succumbs to cancer

TAMPA — Bubba Huerta once won 13 jury trials in a row, a rare feat for a criminal defense attorney battling on the prosecution's turf.

He was both bulldog and gentleman in the courtroom. He refused to get pushed around, but his heart outsized any hubris. He did not shout or curse, and opponents and judges knew they could trust the words he spoke.

"I think if you polled lawyers, I'm not sure you could find somebody who didn't like him," said Scott Tozian, a fellow lawyer who shared an office suite with Mr. Huerta. "In this jealous, egotistical business we have, that's really hard to find."

Mr. Huerta died early Thursday after fighting brain cancer for nearly 14 months. He was 56.

Before he burnished his legacy in federal and state court as a board-certified criminal trial attorney, the grandson of Ybor City cigar workers and son of a well-known football coach left his mark on local ballfields.

He lettered in football and baseball at Plant High, where he also played basketball. He didn't like practicing much, but brought his best for games.

Lee McGriff remembers the first time he laid eyes on Mr. Huerta. His family had returned to town after his father, Marcelino "Chelo" Huerta Jr., a highly successful head football coach at the University of Tampa, retired from a career that took him to Wichita State University and Parsons College.

Marcelino Huerta III — people called him Bubba to avoid confusing him with his father — was stockier then. But he wore his uniform well, McGriff thought. McGriff took it as a sign that the new kid would be a good player.

The teammates remained lifelong friends. They majored in journalism and lived in the athletes' dorm at the University of Florida, where Mr. Huerta played baseball and McGriff played football, and as adults traveled together with their families.

Mr. Huerta had strong family pride and a quick wit. He would send McGriff packages of letters that showed how often people butchered his name. He tried going by Marc Huerta for a time, but people messed that up, too.

"In the most reverent, solemn situations, Bubba was dangerous," McGriff said of his friend's humor. "You didn't want to sit near him during a funeral."

Style mattered to Mr. Huerta. He wore fine socks and custom suits. Friends ribbed him two years ago when Tampa Bay's Best magazine named him one of the city's 20 best dressed residents.

They noted his collegiality when he helped other attorneys build their cases, and admired his courage after doctors found a brain tumor last year.

Mr. Huerta knew something was wrong when he kept dropping his razor one morning as he was trying to get ready for court. But he didn't complain as surgery and chemotherapy slowed him down. A few times, he showed up in court with a bald head.

Last week, he ate a big plate filled with a cheeseburger, baked beans and cake as Terri, his wife of 25 years, and friends and family celebrated the 14th birthday of his daughter, Caroline.

On Thursday, just after midnight, Terri read to her husband from the book of Romans.

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons …

Caroline was there, too, sitting with her father.

Nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

As Terri fumbled to find another passage to read, Bubba slipped away.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this story. Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

>>Biography

Marcelino "Bubba" Huerta III

Born: Dec. 27, 1952.

Died: March 19, 2009.

Survivors: wife, Terri; daughter, Caroline; sister, Susan Alfonso and her husband Andy; five nephews and a niece. Predeceased by parents, Gloria and Marcelino Huerta Jr.

Service: 4 p.m. Sunday, Palma Ceia Presbyterian Church, 3501 San Jose Street, Tampa.

The defense rests, as an exceptional attorney with deep Tampa roots succumbs to cancer 03/20/09 [Last modified: Saturday, March 21, 2009 1:12am]
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