It sounds strange coming from the chairman of one of St. Louis’ pre-eminent trial firms. But Robert Ritter began his career with no intention of being a trial lawyer.
His original aspiration was to be a corporate executive or Wall Street investment professional. But while earning his law degree from Saint Louis University, in 1966 he married Karen Gray, the daughter of Charles E. Gray, one of the top trial lawyers in St. Louis. The elder Gray invited Ritter to come and work as a law clerk at the firm he’d founded in 1946. Upon graduation in 1968, Ritter joined the firm known today as Gray, Ritter & Graham.
Through the years, Ritter has come to love representing individuals. He’s handled virtually every type of case, from mass torts and class actions to automobile and railroad accidents — “every imaginable area where someone might need help,” as he puts it.
Perhaps Ritter’s most famous case came in 1991, when he helped to exonerate a woman convicted of killing her baby. Patricia Stallings was accused of having used antifreeze to poison her 5-month-old son, Ryan, based on the elevated levels of ethylene glycol in his blood.
Ritter took an interest in Stallings’ case after a story about her aired on “Unsolved Mysteries” in 1991, a few months after she was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Experts who saw the program raised the possibility that Ryan Stallings had suffered from a rare genetic disorder known as methylmalonic academia, or MMA, that caused his elevated glycol levels. The theory was bolstered by the fact that Ryan’s younger brother showed similar symptoms — even though he had been born after his mother’s arrest and had never been in her care.
“It was a daunting challenge, but one worth taking on,” Ritter said of the case. He was able to win a new trial for Stallings based on ineffective assistance of counsel at her original conviction. The Jefferson County prosecutor, who became persuaded of Stallings’ innocence, dropped the charges. The case was later featured in a television movie, “Without a Kiss Goodbye.”
“It was a rare and tragic case where both the medical and the legal system utterly failed. But, in the end, both turned around,” Ritter said.
Trial work is a craft Ritter learned under Gray’s mentorship and his own extensive experience. In 1978, after 10 years of practice, he was a recipient of the Lon O. Hocker Award from The Missouri Bar Foundation, a prestigious honor for young trial attorneys.
“The power of persuasion is the secret to any trial lawyer’s success,” he said. “There’s no substitute for preparation.”
Ritter is particularly proud of his efforts with Gray, Ritter & Graham’s annual Advocacy Symposium. Now in its 17th year, the course seeks to teach a select group of attorneys in practice 10 years or less the skills and knowledge needed to represent clients “successfully, ethically, and in the high tradition of the legal profession,” as the firm states on its application.
Like many lawyers who came of age in the era before documents were filed electronically and cases were mostly resolved in mediation, Ritter regrets the loss of civility and camaraderie that once reigned in the courthouse. He hopes the symposium helps to bring that ethic back in some measure.
“Lawyers would fight it out in court and then go have a cup of coffee,” he said.