John Q. Kelly, a lawyer with the venerable firm Ivey, Barnum & O’Mara in Greenwich, specializes in wrongful deaths. Very wrongful deaths. Kelly represented the survivors of Nicole Brown Simpson, allegedly knifed to death by her ex-husband, O. J.; of Natalee Holloway, vanished and believed murdered during a high school class trip to Aruba; and of Kathleen Savio, drowned in her bathtub by ex-husband Drew Peterson.
These notorious cases put Kelly on national TV and made him the most sought-after wrongful death lawyer in the land. Curiously, though, he tends to fly under fame’s hypersensitive radar. People don’t recognize his name or stop him on the street, and there are virtually no news articles that shed light on his illustrious career. Don’t imagine that Kelly is displeased by any of this. He gently resisted our interview request and then expressed a desire to get out of his photo shoot. The only way to explain the paradox—a TV personality who doesn’t invite public notice—is to point out that in twenty-first century America, television is sometimes necessary to further his clients’ cases.
“High-profile, high-stakes litigation is basically a blood sport,” he says. “You either win or you lose, and losing’s not an option.”
“John is an old-fashioned trial lawyer, a very serious lawyer,” remarks Greta Van Susteren, the Fox News Channel host. “Some lawyers are easy to book. John is not, unless it’s for the benefit of his clients. I think he’d much rather be working for them than talking to me on TV.”
“I’ll tell you straight out,” says Bo Dietl, the private investigator and TV personality. “I’ve been in this business a long time, and I’ve seen every kind of lawyer. A lot of them have big names, and they get on TV and blah, blah, blah, they talk a lot of crap. Not John. John is unique. It’s something about the way he presents his cases. He looks honest; he sounds honest; and he is honest. I’ve never seen an attorney who is better prepared and who can break things down for a jury in a way that they understand.”
Kelly has vivid blue eyes set in a tan face, neatly combed chestnut-brown hair and a broad, white, slightly devilish smile. He lacks signs of the enormous ego so common to high-profile lawyers and will venture a heretical opinion when it’s warranted. For example: On Larry King Live he submitted that the case against Amanda Knox, the American convicted of brutally murdering a housemate in Italy in 2007, smacked of an “egregious international railroading,” angering and confusing victims’ advocates everywhere. (“What on earth possessed John Q. Kelly?” read one Internet headline.) But he turned out to be exactly right; Knox’s conviction was overturned in 2011.
Among his own cases, Kelly’s best-known victory came with the civil trial that found O. J. Simpson liable for the deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman in 1997. In the criminal trial, prosecutors had presented a pile of evidence showing that Simpson had committed the June 12, 1994 murders—not least Simpson’s blood mingled with that of the victims’ on his gloves, socks, car and at the crime scene. While seemingly every TV and radio in America was tuned to the months-long criminal trial, Kelly quietly filed a civil suit on behalf of Nicole’s estate. He never expected to have to act on it. “Assuming Simpson would be convicted, it would have been just a little footnote, nothing else,” Kelly says. “We never would have pursued it.”
On October 3, 1995, Simpson was acquitted, shocking the nation and polarizing it, disturbingly, along racial lines. For the majority who believed him culpable, the only chance now to hold him accountable would come at the civil trial in Santa Monica. A win for Kelly would not put Simpson behind bars, of course, but it would cripple him financially and might force him to give up custody of his two young children to Nicole’s parents, Lou and Juditha Brown.
“We had plenty of evidence before we started,” Kelly says, “but probably the most compelling new evidence we turned up were the pictures of Simpson wearing the Bruno Magli shoes.” This was a huge stroke of good luck. The bloody shoe prints leading away from the crime scene were made by size 12 Bruno Magli Lorenzos, a rare high-fashion shoe with a soft sole; but prosecutors had been unable to prove that Simpson owned such a shoe. In a civil-case deposition, Simpson himself testified that he would never own such “ugly-ass” footwear. Mistake. Kelly learned in December 1996—deep into the civil trial—that a freelance photographer in Buffalo had gone through his archive and turned up pictures of Simpson at a football game in 1993, wearing exactly the shoes in question. “The photographer developed those pictures the day I went up there—I think it was New Year’s Eve,” Kelly says, grinning at the memory of that eureka moment. (Simpson’s attorneys were obliged to claim the photos were fakes.)
Unlike the criminal trial, the civil one was not televised. A gag order and a no-nonsense judge also ensured an atmosphere of sobriety and restraint, in marked contrast to that of the circus-like criminal trial. The jury awarded total damages of $33.5 million for the deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. The families did not expect to realize the whole award, but they were able to collect a portion of it from the auctioning of O. J. Simpson’s personal property—including the Heisman Trophy he won in 1968.