BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — J. Anthony Bryan, a veteran defense attorney whose methodical, combative style made him a force to be reckoned with in the courtroom and led to him being awarded the coveted Atticus Finch Award, died early Wednesday.
Bryan handled hundreds of major cases throughout his decades-long career, but he’s likely most well-known for defending, along with attorney Michael Gardina, former vice principal Vincent Brothers in Brothers’ murder trial for the 2003 deaths of his wife, mother-in-law and three of his children.
Local attorneys expressed their sadness as news spread of Bryan’s death.
Defense lawyer Tony Lidgett called Bryan an incredibly intelligent man who never backed down from a fight. He said Bryan loved being an attorney, and had recently told him he would never retire.
“He was a grumpy old ex-Marine that you couldn’t help but love,” Lidgett said.
Deputy Public Defender Paul Cadman, who knew Bryan for decades from back when they both worked in Los Angeles, described him as “tough as nails” and an inspiration to him as a young attorney.
When they reunited in Kern County, “He was just as tough,” Cadman said, “but what a lot of people didn’t know is that he was very well rounded — he could talk baseball and history and politics. He was a pillar in every legal community he has been a part of, including numerous death penalty matters in Missouri.”
And defense attorney David A. Torres said Bryan was skilled in his craft and never turned down a difficult case because of his commitment to the legal profession and his belief that those accused of a crime are entitled to a vigorous defense.
He said Bryan was also a voracious reader and a student of history.
“Just about every one one of his trial juries received a class or two of history during a closing argument,” Torres said.
“He will be sorely missed as a colleague and a friend,” he said.
Bryan served in the U.S. Marine Corps and received an honorable discharge in 1965. A graduate of Loyola Law School, Bryan was admitted to the California State Bar in 1967 and had been in practice ever since.
He received the Atticus Finch Award in 2003 for “unwavering commitment to his clients and the law,” his website says. The award is given by the Criminal Defense Section of the Kern County Bar Association to an attorney who best embodies the qualities of fictional lawyer Finch in the classic “To Kill A Mockingbird.”
The Brothers trial in 2007 drew national attention due to Brothers’ standing in the community as an educator, the number of people killed and the brutality of the crime. The youngest victim was 6 weeks old.
Brothers was convicted and sentenced to death after an extremely contentious trial marked by frequent verbal sparring between Bryan and Gardina and prosecutor Lisa Green. It received an unusual amount of publicity, with people who had no connection to the case attending in person to watch the courtroom fireworks and often compelling testimony.
The Brothers trial is considered among the highest-profile criminal cases to be heard in Bakersfield.
In other noteworthy cases, Bryan represented a man who claimed to have heard voices when he stabbed to death another man aboard a GET bus in 2011, and had been representing a man charged with murder in the 2016 death of his 2-year-old daughter.
A memorial service for Bryan had not yet been scheduled, according to his website.