The members of the editorial board were shocked and deeply saddened to hear that a beloved member, Thomas J. Ullmann, died in a hiking accident on April 13, 2018, in the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York. It is the kind of devastating news that is difficult to comprehend, difficult to process. Ullmann was born in New York, and he exemplified the Empire State’s motto, “Excelsior.” Generally translated as “ever upward,” the Latin word signifies superior achievement, a continuing quest for ascendant goals and aspirations. Ullmann’s tragic accident occurred while he was training for a more challenging 10-day hike in Finland later this year.
As a young adult, Ullmann was transplanted to Connecticut, where he sustained and thrived and eventually became a natural resource for our state’s criminal justice system. He met his beloved wife, Diana, while they were students at Quinnipiac University, and he later graduated from University of Connecticut School of Law. After that, it was a professional life dedicated to public service. He worked in the Division of Public Defender Services, first as an investigator and then as an attorney, for 37 years. For the past 25 years he served as the head of the public defender office in the Judicial District of New Haven. Following his death, the flag at the New Haven courthouse on Church Street was flown at half-staff, an honor that had never been bestowed on any other individual.
Ullmann’s achievements and accomplishments in the courtroom are legendary. He represented every client with passion, compassion and humility. He was a brilliant legal strategist, and a fierce opponent of the death penalty. He was a mentor to younger lawyers, and an inspirational role model for colleagues and law students. He taught trial practice at Quinnipiac University School of Law, and was a visiting lecturer in the Criminal Justice Clinic at Yale Law School.
As a member of the Connecticut Sentencing Commission, Ullmann was working hard to make our sentencing scheme, and our sex offender registry system, more rational and equitable. As a trial lawyer, Ullmann’s name will always be associated with the notorious Cheshire home invasion case, in which he and co-counsel Patrick J. Culligan fought to save the life of Steven Hayes, the first of the two defendants to be tried. Although Hayes was sentenced to death, the Connecticut Supreme Court later ruled the death penalty unconstitutional. Ullmann will also be remembered for persuading a jury to spare the life of multiple-murderer Jonathan Mills.
Yet there is another case, much less well known, that crystallizes Ullmann’s integrity and humanity, and his principled approach to the law. In 1992, Ullmann was called as a witness by the prosecution at a jury trial involving one of Ullmann’s former clients. When asked certain questions about his actions involving the former client, Ullmann refused to answer—he believed that disclosure of the requested information would violate the attorney-client privilege and work-product doctrine, and would also damage the public reputation of the public defender’s office. His refusal to answer prompted the trial judge to hold Ullmann in criminal contempt and impose a fine of $100. The Connecticut Supreme Court ultimately upheld the contempt finding in Ullmann v. State, 230 Conn. 698 (1994). Only then was the fine paid: 100 public defenders each contributed $1, as a way of showing their respect and admiration for Ullmann’s courage and commitment to principle.
In 1995, Ullmann was recognized by the Connecticut Law Tribune for his “Distinguished Service to the Bar.” And in 2011, the Connecticut Criminal Defense Lawyers Association honored Ullmann, a past president of the organization, with its prestigious “Champion of Liberty” award for his career accomplishments.
It was another champion, Muhammad Ali, who famously said, “Don’t count the days; make the days count.” Ullmann lived that adage to the fullest, making the most of his 67 years. When he retired from the public defender’s office in August of 2017, it was for the express purpose of being able to spend more time with Diana and their sons, Erik and Jesse; Jesse’s new wife, Heather; and Tom’s sister, Vivian. He also wanted more time for outdoor pursuits like traveling, hiking and kayaking. He confided to friends that he was planning to write a book about his experiences as a public defender. He already had the title: “The Best Defense Money Can’t Buy.”
We know that Ullmann’s family misses him dearly. We do too.