Legal adversary backs Puryear for federal judgeship

Thursday, April 10, 2008 at 3:02am

Federal judicial nominee Gus Puryear has the support from what some might consider an unlikely spot in the city’s legal community — the opposing attorney in one of the most high-profile cases against Puryear’s employer, private prison giant Corrections Corporation of America.

Nashville attorney David Randolph Smith formally offered his support of Puryear’s nomination to a federal judgeship in the Middle Tennessee District in a Feb. 25 letter to U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy.

Smith was the attorney for the minor children of the late Estelle Richardson, an inmate at CCA’s Metro Detention Facility, who died while in custody of the private prison company.

The Richardson case has been a focal point during Puryear’s at-times confrontational nomination hearing process in front of the Democrat-led Judiciary Committee. A Bush White House nominee, longtime Republican Party operative and CCA’s general counsel, Puryear has received robust scrutiny from media outlets, along with public opposition from advocacy groups such as the Florida-based Private Corrections Institute and its vice president, former convict and Nashville resident, Alex Friedmann.

Richardson died in 2004 while in the Metro CCA facility from what Tennessee Medical Examiner Bruce Levy identified as blunt force trauma to the head. Levy ruled the death a homicide. Her family, represented by a legal team led by Smith, settled out of court for an undisclosed amount in a suit that originally sought $60 million.

Four CCA guards were implicated in the death but never convicted.

Puryear’s Feb. 12 testimony to the committee on the Richardson case drew fire from Democratic senators for suggesting that Richardson’s four broken ribs and damaged liver could have been the result of CPR attempts to save her life.

Yet, in the letter to Leahy, Smith states Puryear would be an “excellent judge.”

“Basically, he is very sharp, keen-minded, inquisitive and has a very good grasp of the law,” Smith wrote. “He is reflective and has a personality that listens but also argues strongly for his position. He is confident but not arrogant.”

Smith’s letter concedes some of the same points critics of Puryear have made during the confirmation process, specifically his lack of trial experience. Smith also identifies himself as a Democrat with “political views 180 (degrees) opposite to those of Mr. Puryear.”

Smith, a former Vanderbilt University law professor and an active trial lawyer, concludes the letter by saying lawsuits against CCA should not reflect on Puryear’s potential future as a federal judge.

“I also believe it is not really fair to conclude that because CCA has many suits against it (many with merit) that this somehow poorly reflects on Mr. Puryear,” Smith stated. “He had what I would think would be a very hard job to do but did it earnestly and professionally.”

As part of his own background he submitted to the committee, Smith notes in the letter he has sued CCA in the past, adding he has “extensive personal experience” with Puryear.

When contacted by The City Paper, Smith said he decided to write the letter because of media attention paid to the Richardson case in covering Puryear’s nomination. Specifically, Smith said a February article in The Tennessean, along with a telephone interview with Nashville Scene Managing Editor Matt Pulle, motivated him to write the letter.

“I am at a loss to explain what possible relationship there is between things that happen in a CCA prison by guards and Gus,” Smith said this week of the media coverage. “I see no logical connection. …I felt the supposition that he (Puryear) was somehow untruthful or that he was covering up was incorrect.”

Smith added that though the Scene article didn’t come out until March 6, the questions asked in the interview with Pulle further motivated him to write the letter in February.

“Matt Pulle talked to me on the phone and gave me all this criticism (of Puryear). It’s not that he didn’t quote me,” Smith said. “It was him (Pulle) telling me the guts of the criticism and knowing the story was going to come out.”

Smith is not quoted in any of the Scene’s coverage of the Puryear nomination process. The March 6 article does quote a variety of local lawyers supporting Puryear’s nomination, including Democrats.

“I said the exact same things in that letter that I said to Matt Pulle,” Smith insisted. “I said good things about him, none of which were quoted.”

Pulle said he interviewed Smith but decided not to use quotes from the interview in the March 6 story.

“I talked to him, and in the March 6 story we didn’t really go into the Richardson case in depth,” Pulle said. “In a later story, we come back to it. In that story we say that there are points of agreement between the CCA attorneys and the Richardson attorneys. That’s clearly noted in there.

“We have had some people be critical of our Puryear coverage, saying we didn’t quote people who had positive things to say about him,” Pulle added. “The reverse is true too. We had people that were very critical of Gus Puryear that we also didn’t quote.”

It is unclear if Smith’s letter will ultimately have any bearing on Puryear’s nomination. Sources close to the committee say the letter is on file with the legal counsel for the committee but has not been entered into the Congressional Record of the proceedings.

“I think the Judiciary Committee members will look at the totality of what they have received and weigh it accordingly,” Friedmann said. “I think this is just a piece of the puzzle.”

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