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Four of the Greatest: A Tribute to Outstanding Lawyers in Colorado History

Jonathan Olom
by Phil Cherner

Jonathan Olom

by Phil Cherner

 

 

Phil Cherner is a longtime Denver attorney whose practice focuses on criminal defense and attorney grievance defense. He agreed to write this profile in January 2006. Serendipitously, in May 2006, he became the twenty-first recipient of the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar’s Jonathan Olom Award.

It is hard to write dispassionately about Jonathan Olom, because we were friends and colleagues. We left law school at about the same time and traveled in the same circles. It also is hard to write about him because I miss him. Jon was a crusader for justice. He packed so much energy into a small frame, and so much skill and dedication into a short legal career.

Personal Background

Jon Olom was born in 1950 in Jacksonville, Florida. He grew up in the Washington, D.C. suburbs of Northern Virginia. His father, Lou Olom, explains that he was a sports fanatic in high school. Although only 5'4", Jon briefly played high school football—until a broken arm brought him to his senses. He became enamored of legendary basketball player Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), who led the University of California, Los Angeles ("UCLA") to three NCAA championships. This inspired Jon to apply at UCLA, where in 1968 he was accepted. While there, he was schooled in and fueled by the radicalism of the antiwar and civil rights movements of that era.

Moving to Denver

Jon’s sister attended the University of Denver ("DU") College of Law, and he followed in her footsteps. Lou Olom explains that Jon went to law school because he wanted to "beat the system." Jon said one needed to learn the rules and regulations, and then use them against the establishment. Perhaps this explains Jon’s later passion for criminal defense.

Jumpstarting Jon’s Legal Career

In his last year of law school, Jon clerked for Denver attorney Joe St. Veltri, but it was through his encounter and work with criminal defense attorney Stan Marks that he gained notoriety in the practice of law. Marks describes Jon and their initial meeting:

I’d been practicing for four or five years and was trying the first case in federal court before Judge Finesilver. Jon had been watching the trial and asked if he could help. He said he was proficient at writing and research. I thought that was fine and gave him some projects. He began doing legal research for me. His work was outstanding and that led to our association. . . . I thought he was a little presumptuous; he was saying that he could help, but he looked so young. He was very short; he came up to about my elbow. He looked like he could be in high school. I thought it was kind of humorous, but he did a terrific job.1

The Juan Haro Case

Jon continued to work with Marks on the Juan Haro case. In 1975, Hispanic activist Juan Haro was charged with conspiring to bomb a Denver police station. Stan Marks agreed to defend Haro for expenses. Jonathan Olom assisted Marks by writing motions while Marks gathered the facts. Denver prosecutors Dick Spriggs and Peter Bornstein sought to admit into evidence a video of an exploding bomb. Jon argued against admission of the video. The judge ruled in Jon’s favor and the video was not admitted into evidence.

The Haro trial started in March 1977, after months of pre-trial maneuvering. Marks and Olom were geared up for a fight, as were Denver prosecutors Spriggs and Bornstein. The case hinged largely on the testimony of informant Joseph Cordova, the People’s star witness. Evidently, the jury found Cordova lacking in credibility. The verdict was announced late on Friday, April 1, 1977, and the next morning, a photo of a beaming Marks with his exhausted client appeared on the front page the Denver Post under the banner headline, "Haro Acquitted of Bomb Plot Charges." (See photograph on page 40.)

The Haro case garnered substantial publicity. Stan Marks credits it with jumpstarting Jon’s career, and certainly helping his own.

Stan Marks (center) and Jon Olom (right) with Juan Haro and family. Photo courtesy of Lon Olom.

Partners in Law

Jon’s association with Stan Marks continued on other cases. It wasn’t long before Jon and Stan became partners. They worked together for several years on a number of significant criminal cases.

Animal House

Stan and Jon set up their law practice in a building on West 12th Avenue, just south of the courthouse. Either because of what it looked like or because of who was in it—or both—it quickly became known in the criminal law community as the "Animal House," after the movie of the same name.

The law firm of Stan Marks and Jonathan Olom had its own version of "casual Fridays." Everyone in the office dressed in jeans on Fridays and it wasn’t uncommon to find them treating themselves to pie and ice cream. One Friday, Judge Susan Barnes from the Denver District Court called Jon regarding a case that involved multiple defendants who needed representation. Jon rounded up several colleagues to go with him to meet with the judge. That must have been quite a sight—showing up in court and before the judge in t-shirts and jeans. However, the judge was grateful for the prompt response by the attorneys and politely made no reference to the fashion faux pas.

The Carl Newland Case

In April 1976, Carl Newland was seized by the police in a Denver bar and questioned about a robbery. The police quickly determined he had not been involved in the robbery. Newland was annoyed that he had been accused of wrongdoing and struggled with police. The struggle resulted in his being arrested for disturbing the peace. Newland had a pre-existing medical condition, which apparently was aggravated by his struggle with police. He died four days after his arrest.

A grand jury cleared the police department, but the family sued the arresting officer and the Denver Sheriff’s Department for negligently dealing with Newland’s medical condition. Jon Olom, Stan Marks, and Walter Gerash represented the family. The jury returned a $128,000 award against the arresting officer. At the time, this was a substantial—even dramatically large—verdict against an individual police officer, and a rarity for Colorado courts.

The KHOW Radio Case

In the late 1970s, the Denver District Attorney obtained indictments against two KHOW radio personalities regarding allegedly fixed Arbitron ratings. The government claimed a disc jockey and the station’s news director had tampered with Arbitron questionnaires to enhance the station’s position. Jon Olom, among others, represented the defendants and convinced the district judge to dismiss the indictment as insufficient.

Worldwide Traveler

Jon’s natural curiosity inspired him to travel around the world. In the late 1970s, he took a trip to China. I recall a photo of a small man standing in the vast expanse of Tianeman Square. The cold temperature registers all over Jon’s face and his hair is caught blowing in the wind. It is apparent in his gaze that his mind is soaking up every morsel of information around him. It was "pure Jonathan."

Criminal Attorney at Law

A Westlaw search of the key words "Jonathan Olom" results in forty-eight cases. That is a fairly remarkable record for a fellow who practiced law only for approximately eight years. Jon represented all manner of accused and convicted felons during his short career. Occasionally, he even was called to appear as a witness. A few noteworthy cases in which Jon participated as a witness or in counsel capacity are mentioned below.

Cases

  • In Thorpe v. Riveland,2 Jon testified as an expert. Judge John Kane described him as "a highly regarded specialist in the defense of criminal cases."3
  • In People v. Rubanowitz,4 Jon testified as a fact witness. Jon had represented Rubanowitz in a previous criminal case. In this instance, Rubanowitz was charged with witness tampering. Jon was not allowed by the trial court to give his opinion about his former client’s ability to form the necessary specific intent. On appeal, this was held to be error.
  • In the case of Stroup v. People,5 Stroup was convicted of first-degree assault and was imprisoned. He did not appeal. Within a year, he filed a post-conviction motion, challenging the conviction on the basis of his trial counsel’s failure to adequately advise him of his right to appeal. At the hearing on Stroup’s motion, the trial attorney testified, "I explained to [Stroup] if a court would look at [the record] and believe what was said about him, they could conclude that he’s a bad person and say, ‘Well, any error was not substantial and we are not going to reverse.’"6 The trial court denied the motion. The Colorado Court of Appeals held that this testimony revealed that Stroup had been denied his right to effective assistance of counsel. However, the court also held that the error was harmless because Stroup presented no meritorious grounds for appeal, and therefore denied relief.7 Jon appealed to the Colorado Supreme Court, which reviewed the case in a different light. The Court determined that the defendant needed only to show "a ground for appeal that has probable merit, i.e., that is not facially frivolous."8 On this basis, the Court granted relief to Stroup.

The Jonathan Olom Award was established in 1985 by the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar.

Crusader for a Cause

Some cases may require enormous amounts of an attorney’s time and effort but may not generate fees. One such case for Jon Olom involved the now-defunct Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant near Golden, Colorado. On April, 28, 1978, 5,000 citizens gathered at Rocky Flats to protest the manufacturing of nuclear weapons components such as plutonium bomb triggers. (Among the protesters was Daniel Ellsberg, the Department of Defense employee who reputedly gave classified information to The New York Times about the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War.9) During the demonstration, 284 of the protesters were arrested and later appeared in federal court on misdemeanor charges.10

Jon Olom became the lead attorney for the protestors on a pro bono basis. He recruited other volunteer attorneys to assist in coordinating defenses, drafting pleadings, and doing everything necessary to ensure the defendants received the best legal representation possible.

The defendants ultimately were convicted. Jon again took the lead on a number of cases that were appealed. Although the appeals also were unsuccessful, dissenting opinions in some of the cases favored the protestors.11 Undoubtedly, were he alive today, Jon would be pleased to learn that a federal jury recently decided against the operators of the Rocky Flats facility and awarded more than $350 million to thousands of the factory’s neighbors for its adverse impact on property values.12

Jon was the driving force behind The Repeat Offenders band.
The Repeat Offenders Band

In the early to mid-1980s, several lawyers began jamming under the name of "The Repeat Offenders." Band members included Scott Wolfe, Jeff Edelman, Valerie McNaughton, Phil Cherner, and Jonathan Olom. On occasion, the band was invited to play in public—at parties and bars. The band may not have been very good, but its members sure had a lot of fun. Anyone who saw the band perform probably will recall Jon playing a blond Fender Stratocaster guitar that was nearly as long as he was tall, his face contorting as he screamed out the lyrics to "Satisfaction."

One winter night, the band was booked to play at a private party in Denver. Band members and equipment were packed into Jon’s van. Jon aborted the trip, however, after driving only a block in the treacherous ice storm that caused the van to slide into the curb. The other band members knew that, even if the instruments and equipment could have been removed from his van, they would not have gone ahead without Jon. He was the driving "force"—without him, there really was no band.

Earning Respect of Colleagues

Throughout his career, Jonathan Olom had earned tremendous respect from his peers. Peter Bornstein, one of the prosecutors in the Juan Haro case, became a defense attorney and worked alongside Jon on several cases. Jon welcomed Peter as he "switched sides."

"Jon was a brilliant legal thinker," Pete said recently. "He found nuggets everywhere he looked, and he was relentless in looking for nuggets. He could turn them into golden jewelry. He was just a creative legal thinking machine."13

Olom Award Created by CCDB

In 1985, at the urging of criminal defense attorney Larry Posner, the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar ("CCDB") created the "Jonathan Olom Award," honoring one of CCDB’s first presidents. This annual award recognizes the "active accomplishments" of a criminal defense lawyer during the previous year and "for remarkable personal sacrifice made without regards to personal gain in the defense of the accused" throughout his or her career.14 The first award was presented in 1985, a few months after Jonathan’s death.

An Unbeatable Cause

In early 1983, Jon noticed a skin lesion, which doctors diagnosed as an advance stage of melanoma that had spread extensively. Radiation treatments were successful for a time, but the cancer returned within a year of these treatments. It slowly sapped Jon’s strength. He had an almost matter-of-fact regard for his disease, though he understood the prognosis.

Jon prepared for the end of his life just as if he were preparing for a case. He attended to the details and maintained a sense of humor throughout. Despite a brave fight, he died at home in 1984 at the age of 34, amidst caring friends.15

Jonathan Olom never married and had no children or significant other. However, he had many companions and friends. He was a "man of the cause," always thinking of new ways to "fight the good fight."

NOTES

1. Telephone conversation with Stan Marks in May 2006.

2. Thorpe v. Riveland, 617 F.Supp. 63 (D. Colo. 1985).

3. Id. at 65.

4. People v. Rubanowitz, 673 P.2d 45 (Colo. App. 1983).

5. Stroup v. People, 656 P.2d 680 (Colo. 1982).

6. Id. at 686 n.3.

7. People v. Stroup, 624 P.2d 913 (Colo.App. 1980).

8. Stroup, supra note 5 at 684.

9. See "Pentagon Papers" at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pentagon_Papers.

10. See http://deesings.livejournal.com/tag/peace+history.

11. See, e.g., U.S. v. Seward, 687 F.2d 1270 (10th Cir. 1982); U.S. v. Thompson, 687 F.2d 1279 (10th Cir. 1982); U.S. v. Pillow, 687 F.2d 1312 (10th Cir. 1982); U.S. v. Ellsberg, 687 F.2d 1316 (10th Cir. 1982).

12. See http://www.rockymountainnews.com/drmn/local/article/0,1299,DRMN_15_4468383, 00.html. See also http://www.rockyflatscoldwarmuseum.org;
http://www.boulder.lib.co.us/branch/carnegieNews/OralHistoryNewsFeb2006.pdf.

13. Telephone conversation with Peter Bornstein in May 2006.

14. See http://www.ccdb.org/about/index.cfm?category=jonathan%20Olom%20award.

15. For more details on Jon’s life and untimely death, see Widener, "The Life and Death of a Friend," Denver Post (Dec. 2, 1984).

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