By Taylor Sisk
Chapel Hill criminal-defense attorney J. Kirk Osborn died in the early hours of Sunday morning. He suffered a massive heart attack on Friday and had been admitted to UNC Hospitals. He was 64.
Osborne was known for keeping a remarkably low profile given the extraordinarily high visibility of several of the cases in which he served as defense attorney. He was equally known for his tenacity in the courtroom.
â€œIâ€™ve heard him described [since his death] as a â€˜warrior for justice,â€™â€ said Superior Court judge and former district attorney Carl Fox, â€œand certainly he was that. But he was a lot more.â€
Though Fox and Osborn faced each other in the courtroom dozens of times â€“ Fox as DA, Osborn as attorney for the defense â€“ all adversarial impulses were left on the premises.
â€œWe both always understood it was business,â€ said Fox. â€œKirk used to call it â€˜teeing it up.â€™ â€˜If we canâ€™t agree,â€™ heâ€™d say, â€˜letâ€™s tee it up.â€™â€
Among his more famous defendants was, most recently, Reade Seligmann, one of three Duke University lacrosse players charged with sexually assaulting a Durham woman.
Osborn and co-counsel Ernest â€œBuddyâ€ Conner presented documents indicating that Seligmann was not on the premises at the time the attack had allegedly occurred, a pivotal development in the case, which was subsequently turned over to the state attorney generalâ€™s office.
As the story played out in the press, Seligmann came to gain considerable public support. Such, said Fox, wasnâ€™t often the case with those Osborn defended.
By and large, Fox observed, the public wasnâ€™t very sympathetic to the people Kirk Osborn defended.
Osborn defended, in 1995, Wendell Williamson, who was charged with two counts of first-degree murder after firing hundreds of rounds of ammunition from an M-1 rifle at passersby in downtown Chapel Hill, near the intersection of Henderson and Franklin. Williamson was found not guilty by reason of insanity.
He defended George Burke, who in 1986 was charged with first degree murder after a shooting outside a Chapel Hill bar. Burke too was found not guilty by reason of insanity.
And Osborn also handled the appeal of Kathryn Dawn Wilson, a defendant in the highly publicized Little Rascals trial, in which the owners and operators of a day-care center in Edenton were accused of habitual child abuse. Wilson had been given a life sentence; her charges were eventually dismissed.
â€œA lot of these people were accused of doing some very bad things,â€ said Fox. â€œBut he gave them the best representation he could,â€ regardless, he added, â€œof whether they were paying or not; regardless of how they were perceived by the public.
â€œI really admired that.â€
Osborn served on the board of the Durham-based Fair Trial Initiative â€“ a nonprofit that challenges death sentences in cases in which the defense was perceived as being incompetent or inadequate. He frequently represented capital case defendants, none of whom were sent to death row.
Osborn is survived by his wife, Tania, and two daughters.