A look at the judge assigned to the WM3 evidentiary hearing

Judge David N. Laser is said to go ‘right to the important thing’

[private]When Judge David Laser took the bench at the scheduling conference with attorneys in the case of the West Memphis Three, he looked a bit like Santa Claus: roundish of belly but with a trim gray beard and mustache, and a black robe instead of the usual red-and-white outfit. He’s bald to about the top of his head, and from there, his hair is longish in back to where it curls above his collar. Though it’s not evident when he’s on the bench, he is said to be rather short—five-foot, give or take an inch. In northeast Arkansas, however, Laser is considered a legal giant.

The judge imposed a gag order on the attorneys at that January 4 conference. Even before that, he had told reporters that he would not grant interviews until the evidentiary hearing to which he’s been assigned is over. Nevertheless, he is a well-known—and apparently well-respected—member of his community and many people who know him agreed to talk about him.

“He has a very good work ethic,” a former law partner observed. “He will stay as long as he needs to stay to get the job done, and he’ll show up as early as he needs to show up.” Another attorney calls Laser “a standout” in Arkansas’s Second Judicial District, adding: “Whenever there’s a real difficult or complex case, all I can say is, he usually ends up being assigned to it.”

Two long-time friends recalled that Laser grew up the son of a merchant in the small town of Forrest City, Arkansas, about a hundred miles south of Jonesboro; paid his way through law school at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville by working as a butcher at a local IGA grocery store; married his wife Ann while they were students; and now have two grown daughters and a son.

Laser’s profile on Plaxo.com (last updated almost two years ago) notes that he also has grandchildren. Other entries there reflect a man who enjoys “whatever the day brings;” cultivates new interests “every day;” “loves blues and rock and roll—country, classical—the works;” likes “CSIs, except CSI NY” and “all the Law and Orders;” reads “mysteries with psycho twists;” and holds religious views he describes as “historical/Jungian.”

A friend chuckles that Laser’s love of blues and rock have developed “mostly since his children have grown up and left home.” But when Laser graduated from law school, he was a newly married young lawyer in serious need of a job. He found one at a firm in south Arkansas, where he stayed a couple of years. He moved back to northeast Arkansas when he was hired by Bon McCourtney—“a colorful old guy who hired a lot of young lawyers,” according to Lovett.  “He was sort of a storied character” who was “old-school, to say the least.” Laser did mainly criminal trial work while with McCourtney.

Troy Henry, another lawyer who worked for McCourtney shortly after Laser left, remembers the older man as a good mentor, especially in regard to dealing with people. McCourtney “had a great understanding of human behavior,” Henry recalled, “and, once you’ve learned the book law, that’s the most important thing.”

While Laser was establishing his legal career, his wife Ann Laser earned a graduate degree at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro. According to her website, she then began work as a psychotherapist, a career she continued for more than 20 years.

 In 1970, Laser left McCourtney to join another Jonesboro firm, where his practice turned mostly to civil trials. It was there that Henry got to know Laser.

 “I met him in the courtroom too many times,” Henry says with a laugh. “We battled time and time and time again, and he became one of my best friends. Whatever happened in the courtroom, whoever won or lost, we walked out, patted each other on the back and put it behind us. Unfortunately, very few lawyers are like him.”

In the late 90s, when Laser first ran for a position as circuit judge, he was unusual in at least two respects: he had never served as a prosecutor, and he didn’t draw an opponent.  Laser was re-elected six years later, again running unopposed. If he chooses to stay on the bench—which friends say they expect—he will have to run again next year.

Laser does not hear cases tried by Henry or other close friends. But Henry says he always hopes to draw a judge as good as Laser. “When attorneys go into his courtroom,” Henry says, “he already knows all about what they’re there for. He’s diligent and totally prepared. He goes right to the important thing, and that makes a world of difference.”

Stan Langley, another attorney who does not appear before Laser, echoes Henry’s admiration. “His strength as a trial lawyer was his full and complete development of the case. He left nothing to chance. He was almost over-prepared, if you ever can be.”

Langley says that Laser’s regard for preparation followed him to the bench. “He does a hell of a job,” Langley says. “He allows the parties to completely develop their cases. I doubt either side in the West Memphis case will have any qualms or reservations about having him as a judge.”

The picture of Laser painted by attorneys who are not friends of the judge was similar, though lawyers in this group asked not to be quoted by name.  Some pointed out that Laser  was one of the earliest judges in the state to push, along with Judge David Burnett, to establish drug courts in their district. The courts are intended to help first-time offenders avoid prison by submitting to strict monitoring of their conduct and avoidance of drugs.  “He does that every Tuesday night,” one attorney observed.

Another Jonesboro resident noted that, unlike one state judge who used to televise her drug courts, Laser is highly protective of his. “He likes for all of the attention to be centered on the defendant, so he limits attendance. He says, ‘I want them to do it on their own, and not with the whole world watching.’ He doesn’t like the spotlight on him or on the people in there.”

Almost everyone interviewed for this article used words like “personable,” “pleasant,” “kind,” and “meticulous” to describe Laser. Only one person mentioned ever having seen the judge get “annoyed,” and that, he said, happened only “when attorneys aren’t prepared or don’t follow procedure.”

Off the bench, David and Ann Laser divide their time between homes in Jonesboro and Santa Fe, New Mexico, where Ann, who has an art studio . Her work—monotypes, paintings and mixed media—are sold online and in galleries in Jonesboro and London.

This quote from her website expresses her view of art, but it also describes a humane and judicious temperament: “I believe the challenge we all face as individuals, groups, and nations is to be able to understand, accept and hold the tension between polarities in ourselves and with others … polarities such as ‘us/them,’ ‘good/bad,’ ‘black/white,’ [and] ‘have/have-not.’”[/private]

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