Well-known Tampa criminal lawyer goes civil. What’s it like on the other side?

Irina Baranova

TAMPA – For more than 30 years, attorney Rick Terrana sat in court next to defendants accused of crimes ordinary and horrific.

There was Eddie Lee Sexton, the Ohio family patriarch investigators say ruled his children with psychological and sexual abuse and ordered a murder to keep the family secrets. There was Adam Davis, charged with killing his teenage girlfriend’s mother and leaving her body in the woods.

Over the years, Terrana was a fixture in Hillsborough County’s criminal courtrooms — until he recently surprised courthouse regulars with big news. At 61, he was making the move to handle civil cases at the law firm of Morgan & Morgan, a different world from the one he’s known his entire legal career.

Raised in Tampa and educated at Jesuit High and Mercer law school, Terrana talked with the Tampa Bay Times about his late career change, what’s different and what’s surprisingly the same.

How many cases have you defended in your years in criminal law?

Oh gosh, I’ve tried about 200 jury trials. I’ve defended … in the thousands it’s got to be in the course of 35 years. I’d have 100 cases at any given time.

Which ones stick with you the most?

Adam Davis, who just got off death row. That was one of my most satisfying moments, getting him off death row after I put him on death row (as his defense attorney.) That was the only (death) penalty phase I ever lost. And it was the one that bothered me most.

Rick Terrana, right, stands with defendant Adam Davis in 1999 as they learned Davis had been sentenced to death. From left are attorney Chuck Traina and courtroom bailiff Judd Bostwick. [TIMES}

After all those years, did you get tired of criminal law?

When you do criminal work, you have to have 100% full passion or you’re not going to be good at it. And that’s what led me to be successful. I was just losing that passion. Everything was changing so much with the system. The old days of relationships with prosecutors, it was a lost thing.

How did you find your way to Morgan & Morgan?

I spoke with a couple of guys over there and fell in love with the culture.

I think (the firm) appreciated the value of my trial experience. I’m comfortable telling stories, and that’s what a trial is: a story.

You have to like to try cases. That’s what I’ve done for 35 years.

Eddie Lee Sexton Sr., right, confers with his attorney, Rick Terrana during a 1994  sentencing hearing in Tampa. Sexton was convicted of ordering the strangling of his son-in-law.  (AP Photo/Karen Fletcher)
Eddie Lee Sexton Sr., right, confers with his attorney, Rick Terrana during a 1994 sentencing hearing in Tampa. Sexton was convicted of ordering the strangling of his son-in-law. (AP Photo/Karen Fletcher) [ KAREN FLETCHER | Associated Press ]

Have you tried one in civil court yet?

I did. A car accident case. A client was injured when he was rear-ended. We settled the case on the third and final day of trial. Paid us exactly what we wanted.

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So was it as satisfying as a not guilty verdict?

It really was. It was satisfying after living with the client a couple of months and understanding the case and seeing the suffering he’s gone through over the past four years. Two back surgeries …To bring that guy to full justice was very satisfying.

What kind of law are you practicing?

Civil trial law. I was hired to try premise liability cases, slip and fall, any kind of construction accidents, negligent security. Accidents at restaurants. You can’t believe how many people walk out to their cars in this town and they fall into grease traps.

What’s your day like now compared to how it used to be?

It was at the point where it was a lot more laid back in the criminal practice. I was used to it. There’s not a thing I didn’t know how to do or get done.

Now I’m in a whole new world of lingo, a whole new book of rules and procedures. It’s been very challenging.

This is a great encore career for me, as I’ve been calling it.

You don’t have to go visit clients at the jail anymore, right?

(He laughs.) I would rather have been hit on the head three times a day than to go to that jail every day. The logistics of it all. Signing in, waiting.

I go in my office and with the exception of a short lunch. I don’t go out until I leave in the afternoon. And I love it.

Is it fancier than before?

No. Very simple.

Was it good to get back in court?

Oh yeah. I love being in court and trying cases. I don’t miss all the perfunctory hearings. Mostly we’ve done away with those on the civil side. Not once have I appeared in court for anything other than a trial.

What you would call status hearings in criminal (court), they have case management conferences in civil (court), and it’s all video.

So what’s the basic difference in what you do now?

In criminal (court) we’re talking about liberty. In civil we’re talking about compensating people.

Does it feel less important?

No. It feel just as important.

Do you dress differently?

You don’t have to dress so conservatively. There’s a tendency in criminal cases for jurors to look at a defense lawyer in a real fancy suit and say, oh, this defendant says he’s not guilty (but) look at his fancy lawyer with a big watch that he paid a lot of money to.

I don’t think you have to worry about that on the civil side. All the lawyers look good and your client’s in a different position. You don’t have a client accused of killing people or robbing someone.

You’ve got a guy injured. Most jurors can put themselves in that position at one time or another during their lives.

What do you miss?

Honestly, there’s not a whole lot that I miss. If I look at my career, I pretty much accomplished what I wanted to accomplish.

Criminal law is fun. You’re butting heads in the courtroom. You’re trying to convince one juror every time.

Every trial’s a story, civil or criminal. If you’re comfortable telling stories, you’re going to be a good lawyer. It’s still a fight, it’s just a lot more details.

What’s surprised you?

I went from (being) one lawyer to (one of) 880 lawyers.

The resources available are just incredible. That’s something I’ve really appreciated. They staff you up.

(In his criminal practice) I had the same (assistant) there for 20 plus years.

It’s been a really different culture for me but it’s been a really cool culture. I’ve never worked downtown as far as having an office there. I’m in the work world now.

(Because driving downtown can take time) I recognized really quick why everybody brings their lunch. My wife bought me a Yeti lunch box. I haven’t used it yet.


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