Thomas Ullmann, the former chief public defender in the New Haven Judicial District known for taking on difficult cases, died Friday while hiking in the Adirondacks.
Ullmann, 67, who retired last fall, most notably represented Steven Hayes, one of the two men convicted in the 2007 Cheshire home invasion murders.
New York police said Saturday that they found Ullmann’s body on a trail near Indian Lake, N.Y., according to a report in the New Haven Register. Police have not released a cause of death.
Ullman’s wife, Diana, said Sunday evening that the family is in shock.
“It was a freak accident,” she said. “It’s just a real shock to not have him in our lives anymore.”
Diana described her husband as a “fabulous person, a fabulous lawyer, an incredible father,” and a man who struck the perfect work/life balance. He is survived by two sons, Jesse and Erik.
“Family was always the most important ingredient,” Diana said. “He had a demanding and consuming career, but always made time for his family and social life.”
Diana said after Ullmann retired last fall, one of the things he wanted to do was hike more. His hike this weekend was part of his preparation for a 10-day hike in Finland in September, Diana said.
His death stunned his legal colleagues.
“Tom Ullmann was a hero of mine,” said Norm Pattis, a criminal defense lawyer. “Defending unpopular people is a vocation few people understand. Tommy did it with dignity and courage every day that he came out to court and was an inspiration to me and will remain so.”
Pattis said Ullmann, who had served as chief public defender since 1992, had an unwavering commitment to the interests of his client, exemplified in his representation of Hayes in the murders of Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her daughters, Michaela, 11, and Hayley, 17, in 2007.
“He stood by [Hayes] through every phase of the proceedings up to the time he was condemned to die,” Pattis said. “Tommy could find the humanity in the accused.” The death sentences of Hayes and his partner in the murders, Joshua Komisarjevsky, were later changed to life in prison when Connecticut abolished the death penalty.
“[Ullmann] was just an Odysseus-like character,” Pattis said. “He was a man of many wiles. You know what it is to defend people, especially a case like the Cheshire case. Everybody in the room wants your client dead. You stand between the crowd and that person, and your defense is a civilizing influence, and that’s who Tommy was. He was one of the most civil people I ever knew.”
Willie Dow, another lawyer, said Ullmann had lost two close friends at a relatively young age and wanted to take advantage of his time to travel and hike.
“Tom was the gold standard for professional responsibility of a criminal defense lawyer,” Dow said. “He was always the one that [we] used to measure our own performance.
“He represented his clients wholeheartedly and many of his clients were very unpopular people. And that had no effect on the vigor and energy that he devoted to protecting their rights.”
Dow said lawyers would ask themselves, “ ‘Have I done as good as Tom Ullmann would do in representing my clients?’ He really was universally admired and respected by judges, by lawyers, by clients.”
Ullmann was a graduate of Quinnipiac University and the University of Connecticut School of Law. Even though he retired, Ullmann maintained membership in a number of law committees, particularly the Sentence Reform Committee, Dow said.
Dow said Ullmann also taught trial practice at Quinnipiac’s law school and made himself available to assist lawyers in tactical decision, how to approach problems, and get the best results for clients.
He said Ullmann stood up to judges when he thought they were wrong, and once was held in contempt of court. “He wouldn’t buck under to an unreasonable demand by a prosecutor,” he said.
Ullmann didn’t have to go to jail in that contempt case, Dow said. “He told me, ‘I always figured I had the constitution on my side. That’s all I needed,’ ” Dow said.
“It’s a terrible, terrible loss that all of us are feeling.”
Ron Osach, another New Haven lawyer, said Ullmann was “full of life. He loved to do many things. He loved the outdoors, he loved the law. He was a role model among lawyers. He had so many close personal friends and acquaintances from living in Connecticut for 40 years and practicing law here.”
Osach said Ullmann was a “fervent advocate of the abolition of the death penalty. He represented numerous individuals who potentially faced either life imprisonment or the death penalty and he fought for them.”
“He will be terribly missed by all who knew him,” Osach said.
Courant staff writer Mikaela Porter contributed to this story.