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Edward Greenspan, left, and Garth Drabinsky arrive at the University Ave. court house in Toronto in 2009.Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

Shortly after he turned 13, Edward Greenspan ventured into the library of his father, a scrap dealer who had just died of a heart attack, and discovered a trove of books about idealistic criminal lawyers from the United States and England.

Sad and feeling alone, the 13-year-old picked up Irving Stone's biography of Clarence Darrow, and devoured it in two days. Then he asked questions about his father's life. He learned that his father had been a law student at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, until his own father had a heart attack, and he'd dropped out and come home to Niagara Falls, Ont., to run the scrap business with his two younger brothers.

Eddie Greenspan's heart had opened to the romance of criminal law. Even when his father's three best friends – a judge, a Crown attorney and an Ontario Provincial Police officer – urged him to become a prosecutor, he couldn't be budged. He would live out his father's dream.

"The idea of becoming a criminal lawyer was pretty much cemented for me after I read the book on Darrow," he told family lawyer Stephen Grant, in an interview published in the Advocates' Journal in March, 2009. "I found the idea of defending the underdog against all odds very heroic – fantastic trials, exposure to cross-examination. From that day on, it's what I wanted to do."

Over a 44-year career in which his fame rivalled that of his best-known clients, not just among lawyers but Canadians at large, Mr. Greenspan chased his dream with a rare single-mindedness. Even as he became the go-to lawyer for the rich and powerful, the romance never faded: The underdog was the individual fighting for a fair trial against the far more powerful forces of the state.

"For me, [criminal law] always has been and always will be a romantic notion, because if you are a criminal lawyer, you stand between the abuse of governmental power and the individual," he said in a speech in September, 2009, in accepting the Advocates' Society medal. "You are involved in assisting and defining the rights of individuals for generations to come."

The 70-year-old died in his sleep of heart failure in the early morning hours Wednesday, at a family vacation home in Phoenix. He leaves two daughters, Julianna and Samantha, his wife of 46 years, Suzy (born Dahan), his brother Brian and sister Rosann.

He was born in Niagara Falls, a rough place in which he gained his street smarts. After his father's death, his mother, Emma, raised Eddie and his siblings on her salary as a school secretary. Brian also became a leading criminal lawyer, and Rosann became a criminology professor at the University of California at Berkeley. Mr. Greenspan described his early role models, beyond Clarence Darrow, as "heroic seekers of truth" in TV shows and movies, such as Perry Mason and Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. He chose Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto because one of his real-life heroes, the outstanding defence lawyer and appeal court judge G. Arthur Martin, had studied there. Mr. Greenspan's unshakeable attachment to criminal law meant he gave little attention to real-estate law or corporate law, two subjects that might have come in handy in some of his most famous white-collar crime cases involving financier Leonard Rosenberg and media baron Conrad Black. He earned his law degree in 1968, and was called to the Ontario bar in 1970.

His passion for work was legendary. On his 1968 honeymoon with Suzy, whom he met at a party while in law school, he read half the Criminal Code. But he struggled in private practice, earning just $3,200 in his first year. He maintained that he and Suzy seriously discussed returning to Niagara Falls where he could earn a steady living in a general practice and real estate, and he once quoted her, perhaps apocryphally, as saying, "Let's give it one more year. If it doesn't work, you go back to Niagara Falls."

A turning point came in 1972, when he worked as a junior counsel with Joseph Pomerant, his second cousin, defending accused wife-killer Peter Demeter in a sensational, long-running trial. His role was to make legal arguments when the jury was not present, which meant the media couldn't report them until the jury was deliberating. But when the trial ended, and Mr. Demeter was found guilty, the news media kept the story aloft by reporting on those legal arguments and the "kid" lawyer who made them. "That's when I emerged in the public eye," he told Mr. Grant.

Other rising young stars of the criminal bar came to work alongside him in the 1970s – Alan Gold, future Supreme Court Justice Michael Moldaver and future appeal court judge Marc Rosenberg. David Humphrey Jr., a law partner of Mr. Greenspan's brother, Brian, recalled that after Mr. Greenspan gave a masterful performance in a trial, he phoned Mr. Rosenberg at lunch and discussed strategy and evidence. "Here he was, even then the greatest criminal lawyer in Canada, and he made sure that he had one of the great legal minds, in Marc Rosenberg, fully briefed and available to assist with any difficult decisions that had to be made during a trial."

His next big-name case –after the Demeter appeal, which he handled himself, unsuccessfully – came in 1980 and involved the Canadian baseball pitcher Ferguson Jenkins, whom he idolized. Mr. Jenkins had been caught with a small amount of cocaine. A criminal conviction might make it impossible for him to cross the border and play baseball. Mr. Greenspan called as a character witness a Chatham, Ont., businessman who described a charity function in which Mr. Jenkins had taken off his boots, auctioned them for $150, then walked home in his stocking feet. The judge gave him an absolute discharge.

He thought of two cases as especially satisfying, those close to him say. One came in 1981 and involved Antonio Scopelliti, an Italian immigrant who shot and killed two teenagers robbing his convenience store in Orillia, Ont. Mr. Scopelliti was acquitted, and the case established the legal principle that in claiming self-defence, an accused may show evidence of his assailant's prior violent acts, even if he was unaware of them at the time.

A second came in the 2001 case of United States v. Burns at the Supreme Court of Canada, involving two Canadian 18-year-olds wanted in the murder of three U.S. citizens. Mr. Greenspan represented Glen Burns, and argued that Canada should not extradite people to face capital punishment. The Supreme Court, reversing a precedent, barred such extraditions, and Mr. Greenspan later wrote all the lawyers involved to say that it had been an enormous privilege to work on the case, according to Toronto lawyer James Lockyer, who received one of the letters.

"He saw it as the most important judgment in which he'd ever been involved," Mr. Lockyer recalled this week.

Fighting capital punishment was a cause close to his heart. In 1987, as Parliament considered overturning the 1976 ban on the death penalty, he left his practice and spent months debating the issue around the country. "There's got to be something very right with you if you do that," Mr. Lockyer said.

Mr. Greenspan built his success on obsessive attention to detail. A 1985 profile in Saturday Night magazine shows him working well past midnight, trial transcripts spread before him on his office floor, anticipating testimony, working out strategy. "He had a capacity to work 24-7 when he was involved in a case," Justice Moldaver said this week. "He devoted his heart and soul to whatever client he happened to be acting for at a given time."

The big-name cases were not the bulk of his work, Mr. Humphrey said. "He had a huge caseload. He represented everyday people, every day."

Anthony Doob, a criminology professor emeritus at the University of Toronto, invited Mr. Greenspan to lecture to his class. "He would tell the students, 'you never just go in and wing it. This was serious business and people's lives were at stake.' It's a classic textbook set of values about the criminal law."

A father of two daughters, and grandfather to three girls, he was open about being a workaholic. He told Suzy before they married that the law came first; he was married to the law, and she would be his mistress. His daughter Julianna, who is a partner in his law firm, makes light of her father's devotion to his work. "I barely know the man. I'm not even sure how he got my number," she said in a speech introducing him for an award. Justice Moldaver described him as a devoted husband and father. "He never made a jury address or a speech without running it by Suzy first."

Mr. Greenspan described his joy at having Julianna work in his firm. "I once was in a debate where people were talking about trying to have quality of life and how it's important to have quality time with your children. I didn't have a lot of time with my children. In the meantime, my daughter is practising law with me now and we love each other."

He didn't golf or drink. "Work is much more fun than fun," he said, quoting Noel Coward. After Nova Scotia premier Gerald Regan was acquitted on sex-abuse charges, he invited his colleagues to celebrate with him at Dairy Queen, lawyer William Kaplan recalls.

He enjoyed midnight sorties to Fran's Restaurant or burger joints where he would discuss legal and world events with his close friend, the writer George Jonas. (They met at the Demeter trial when Mr. Jonas, who was writing about it with his then-wife Barbara Amiel, gave him a pill for his headache; it was as if, Mr. Jonas said, he had pulled a thorn from the lion's paw. They were friends for life.) If a break appeared in his schedule, he and Suzy would fly to Paris or London for a week.

His output was enormous. Apart from defending luminaries such as media baron Conrad Black and theatre impresario Garth Drabinsky in white-collar criminal cases, and nursing-home operator Helmuth Buxbaum in the murder of his wife, he played host to a CBC radio and then television show for 17 years, called The Scales of Justice, that was written by Mr. Jonas. From 1978 until the present, he edited (and, beginning in 1997, co-edited) an annotated Criminal Code that was an indispensable aid for a generation of legal practitioners. He taught criminal procedure at Osgoode Hall Law School from 1972 to 1981, and at the University of Toronto law school from 1972 to 1999. As late as last year, he became a lecturer on politics and the criminal process to fourth-year political science students at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont.

He said he wanted to work until his last day – he envisioned himself dying at 90 of a heart attack in a court room, after a jury pronounced his client not guilty. He fell 20 years short, but the general idea was the same – the day before Mr. Greenspan died, Mr. Lockyer received a business letter from him.

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