Attorney fights for his clients’ lives
By Nicole C. Brambila, December 14, 2015
Robert J. Kirwan II never asks whether a client is innocent or guilty.
In a 25-year career that started in the Berks County district attorney’s
office, Kirwan has represented five men in capital cases from Berks,
Lancaster and Schuylkill counties. Only one, Abraham Sanchez Jr. in
Lancaster, was sentenced to death. One case, involving Julius C. Enoe,
ended in an acquittal.
In Kirwan’s telling, the Enoe case is the stuff of Hollywood.
After a Schuylkill County judge declared a mistrial in the 2010 murder and
robbery of a Shenandoah man, Enoe, who is black, went into his second trial
facing an all-white jury and a hostile courtroom packed with the victim’s
family who at one point wore T-shirts depicting three monkeys in nooses
representing the three defendants.
Following the not-guilty verdict, the courtroom erupted in chaos. Kirwan
and Enoe slipped out a service exit to elude the riotous crowd.
A framed picture of Kirwan and Enoe in the attorney’s Reading office reads,
“It’s not about winning and it’s not about losing, it’s about seeking the
truth.” Next to it is a framed court order from Sept. 2, 2011, that reads:
“It is hereby ordered the jury’s verdict of not guilty on all counts shall
be recorded and defendant discharged immediately.”
Every Christmas Kirwan hears from Enoe, usually a card expressing his
“I enjoy doing this,” said Kirwan, 50. “It’s the courtroom. I’m not a big
fan of sitting in the office all day long pushing papers.”
And then he launches into a favorite quote from famed attorney Clarence
Darrow: “The only real lawyers are trial lawyers, and trial lawyers try
cases to juries.”
‘Against the death penalty’
If the Enoe case illustrates the thrill of litigating and winning, the
Sanchez case for Kirwan demonstrates all that’s wrong with capital
In 2009, Sanchez stood trial for the murder of 65-year-old Ray Diener in a
During the penalty phase, Kirwan and co-counsel Jeff Conrad presented
evidence that Sanchez had endured unspeakable abuse that included beatings
from his father, who on at least one occasion duct-taped Sanchez to a chair
and left him to defecate and urinate on himself, Kirwan said. A doctor also
testified that Sanchez had sustained brain trauma.
The defendant’s IQ was 70, indicating a mental disability, which would make
him ineligible for the death penalty. In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled the
execution of the intellectually disabled was unconstitutional.
“He’s the guy, of all the people I ever represented, that probably should
not be there,” Kirwan said, noting Sanchez is intellectually disabled.
Conrad, Sanchez’s attorney during the penalty phase, showed jurors a
picture of his battered face, saying “If you beat a child and subject him
to mental torture, this is what you get.”
“It was the most heart-wrenching, raw emotional testimony,” Kirwan said.
The Lancaster County jury deliberated seven hours.
“The jury took three days to find him guilty of murder, but only hours to
give him the death penalty,” Kirwan said. “We were stunned. It kind of made
me even more against the death penalty because of the way it’s applied.”
‘He has a certain gravitas’
Kirwan is one of nearly 400 attorneys in the commonwealth who have met the
qualifying standards to represent defendants in capital cases. Berks County
has roughly two dozen such attorneys.
The quality of capital representation has long been a concern in
Pennsylvania, which established minimum qualifications in 2004.
A Reading Eagle investigation in October found nearly one in five
Pennsylvania inmates sentenced to death in the past decade were represented
by attorneys disciplined for professional misconduct at some point in their
careers. And further, the majority of these disciplined attorneys had been
found by Pennsylvania courts to be ineffective in at least one capital
“They’re not always the best attorneys in the world,” Kirwan said of
capital attorneys. “They cut corners, and as a result of cutting corners
they get in trouble with the disciplinary board.”
State records show Kirwan, who takes appointments when public defenders and
conflict counsel cannot, has not been disciplined.
Capital cases can be very demanding, requiring up to 500 hours or more to
prepare and try. To make it work, in the weeks leading up to a capital
trial, Kirwan said he’ll put in 70-hour weeks, working as many of his cases
ahead as he can to free up his schedule.
These capital cases typically do not pay well. The Berks County Office of
Court Administration did not have a cost estimate, but Kirwan and others
who work capital cases have said an appointment often pays about two-thirds
less than can be earned in private practice.
But these high-profile cases, such as the Michael Wilkins triple murder
case in June, can build the practice in different ways, Kirwan said, adding
the payoff isn’t always monetary.
“You can’t say Robert does it for the money,” said Lisa Renninger, Kirwan’s
sister. “This is the taking of a life, and he takes it seriously because he
realizes what’s at stake. He’s dedicated to a case when he does take it
Conrad, the Lancaster attorney who worked with Kirwan, agreed, saying
Kirwan has the ability to bring the most sterile facts to life.
“I think he has a certain gravitas,” Conrad said before he added, “He truly
believes in what he’s doing.”