He's the Perry Mason of Duluth
The first time Duluth defense attorney Kevin Cornwell went to Las Vegas, he won a couple thousand dollars in a half-hour playing craps, earning the short-lived nickname "Lucky."
In his professional life, Cornwell rolls the dice a different way. He decides which of his clients' criminal cases to settle short of trial and which cases to put in the hands of a jury. He's been on just as much of a roll in St. Louis County courtrooms as he was in Las Vegas.
Cornwell has won acquittals for his clients in the last nine cases he has presented to a jury over the last two years.
His latest jury acquittal came Nov. 3, when a Cornwell client was found not guilty of domestic assault.
Included in his string of not-guilty verdicts is the acquittal of a Duluth man on an attempted second-degree murder charge. After Cornwell presented his defense in that case, jurors needed only 75 minutes to find his client not guilty.
For the most part, he's casual, relaxed and unemotional in the courtroom. He's also prepared.
"I try to be the most prepared lawyer in the courtroom," he said. "The more cases you try, it becomes easier to be prepared because you can anticipate issues and know how to argue the issues. Certainly, I'm not saying the other side isn't prepared. The folks (in the prosecutor's office) that we deal with on a daily basis are excellent. They know what they are doing."
Eight of the nine defendants Cornwell gained acquittals for were either African-American or American Indians. "My experience is that a juror doesn't care what race they are," Cornwell said. "They are always going to hold the government to its burden of proof. That's what it's all about."
How does he explain the nine straight acquittals?
"I don't know how much luck had to do with it, but it can't hurt," Cornwell said. "As I think back on those cases, either they gave no confessions, or any statements given by the clients were not hurtful to themselves; that's No. 1," he said. "If you've got a client that's already confessed, you're in tough shape, generally."
Others give Cornwell more credit than he gives himself.
"Kevin has always been a very, very straight shooter, and the jury likes a guy that ... feels comfortable revealing the weak parts of his case, because the jury feels the defense is being honest rather than trying to hide things," said Minnesota Court of Appeals Judge Larry Stauber, who once employed Cornwell in his Duluth law firm.
"He's the type of guy where what you see is what you get -- and what you get is a good hard worker, well-prepared and not afraid of the court, but yet very respectful of the court and well, well-received by the district court judges," Stauber said. "I can tell you he has an excellent reputation for honesty and integrity and work ethic."
St. Louis County Attorney-elect Mark Rubin is his office's most experienced trial attorney and has gone against Cornwell in the courtroom.
"You could say that when he came back from Las Vegas, his nickname for a while was 'Lucky,' so maybe there's some truth to it," Rubin said with a laugh before turning serious. "He does an excellent job of representing people and knows which cases to take to trial. He has a good sense of the issues and does a really good job. ... Maybe he has some of the same attributes of Thomas Jefferson, who said that he wasn't a big believer in luck, but found that it seemed the harder he worked, the luckier he got."
Cornwell is under a three-quarter-time contract to the 6th Judicial District Public Defender's Office, where his supervisor is Fred Friedman, and he devotes the rest of his time to his private practice.
"His record is remarkable," Friedman said. "His communication skills are working. What he says is effective and he's doing the right job of analyzing what cases should go to trial. He's strong on common sense, and he has the ability to assess the issues that the jury finds decisive."
When asked whether he has any especially important questions he asks when questioning prospective jurors, Cornwell shrugged and said not really. He refused to get into trial tactics, but he said police testimony can sometimes help his client if he knows the right question to ask.
Cornwell does ask prospective jurors if they have any relatives or friends who are police officers, and if they feel they would have to justify their verdict to that relative or friend if the prosecution didn't prove its case. If they feel that way, he said, he doesn't want that person on the jury.
Cornwell, 43, grew up in east St. Paul and graduated from Harding High School. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he played trumpet in the school's marching band and performed at a couple of bowl games with the Gophers football team. He wasn't sure what he wanted to do with his sociology degree, so he enrolled at Hamline Law School and found a career he thought was worth pursuing. At law school, he met Jill Eichenwald, now also a Duluth defense attorney. The couple has been married 16 years and are the parents of 12-year-old twins, Hannah and Noah.
"We talk about cases every once in a while," Cornwell said. "She certainly has changed the way I've looked at some cases, even during a trial. I'll ask her what she thinks about a legal argument. She's made suggestions and vice-versa. But our kids don't like to hear us talk about work. They just don't want to hear it."
Cornwell said the toughest case he ever had to deal with was the 2003 unintentional slaying of 5-year-old Marcus Johnson at the St. Regis apartments. He represented the teenager who drove the shooter to and from the scene of the crime where the boy was accidently shot and killed during a robbery of drugs and money. The dead boy was the same age as Cornwell's twins at that time.
"I cried when I was reading the discovery; it was terrible," he said. "Nobody likes cases with kids as victims. Period. But as a public defender, you can't turn down a case because you don't like the facts of a case, or you don't like the person accused of it. Everybody is entitled to due process and a vigorous defense. That's what we're there for."