Turmoil stalks a longtime judge in Phila.

Most recently, authorities say, the Family Court jurist was assaulted by her son.

Posted: September 05, 2007

In the courtroom of life, there's not much order for Philadelphia judge Lisa Richette.

She's been beaten and robbed on the streets of Center City - twice. She's been punched in the head while sitting in her car. She's had her chambers taken over by a deranged woman who donned her judicial robes.

And now, at almost 79, the senior Family Court jurist has been assaulted by her own son, police say. Moreover, the day after his arrest, he exposed himself on camera to a TV reporter. It's a monster hit on YouTube.

Hear ye, hear ye: Is the Honorable Lisa Richette a magnet for mayhem or just unlucky?

"If I were an actuary, I'd have a hard time giving her insurance," says former longtime Inquirer columnist Clark DeLeon, who periodically wrote about Richette.

To local criminal defense attorney Andrew Gay, who has argued many cases before the flamboyant judge, Richette doesn't go looking for trouble. Trouble goes looking for her.

This time, it didn't have far to look.

Lawrence Richette allegedly attacked his mother at her Center City home Aug. 21. Taken by paramedics to Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, she received stitches for a cut above her eye, according to police.

Charged with simple assault and recklessly endangering another person, Lawrence Richette was released on his own recognizance Aug. 22, his 48th birthday. A preliminary hearing is set for Oct. 29.

The only child of Judge Richette and her late husband, lawyer Lawrence J. Richette, Richette has a history of legal troubles, some involving alcohol or drug use.

When contacted for comment, he said, "Leave my mother and me the hell alone," then hung up. Judge Richette did not return repeated messages left on her home answering machine.

Family acquaintances describe the mother-son relationship as volatile. Both are known for their mercurial moods. Judge Richette was hospitalized for depression in the late '70s.

DeLeon recalls a night about 15 years ago when Judge Richette, "looking kind of frantic," walked into Dirty Frank's, a bar at 13th and Pine Streets, in search of a public phone.

She told DeLeon that she and her son had gotten into an argument as they were driving, and that he had broken off the key in the ignition and bolted, DeLeon says.

DeLeon and several others pushed the vehicle from the middle of 13th Street to the curb. "That's when I knew the rumors [about their problematic relationship] were true," he says.

Fortunato Perri Jr., Richette's attorney, says his client and Judge Richette get along well and spend a great deal of time together. He helps her with her "day-to-day needs and activities," Perri says.

Throughout her 36 years on the bench, Richette, a devout Catholic, has been notable for her deep compassion - particularly for women, children and the homeless. Her son is no exception; she is said to be very protective of him.

"He does no wrong, in her eyes," says West Chester criminal defense lawyer Samuel C. Stretton, a veteran of Richette's courtroom.

Not surprisingly, Richette's compassion, as well as her vocal opposition to the death penalty, has made her popular with area defense lawyers. They usually opt for nonjury trials when she's presiding.

Attorney David Rudovsky praises her independence and willingness to make controversial decisions. Stretton calls her "a pioneer in juvenile rights" and says her groundbreaking 1969 book, The Throwaway Children, is still used as a textbook in many colleges.

A. Charles Peruto Sr., who represented Richette in a libel case against Philadelphia magazine in 1994, says she is "more into the human side of people than the fact of the crime itself."

It is that "humanity" that has angered many prosecutors and crime victims.

She's been criticized for being soft on criminals, for being too emotional, for being too publicly involved with liberal causes.

Some of her cases are the stuff of local legend.

She acquitted a woman of murder who had killed her 7-week-old child by hurling her against a concrete wall. Instead, she was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter.

She did the same for a mother who had abandoned her newborn in a toilet, saying, "I don't believe she intended to murder this child."

In 1992, the family of a murdered cab driver accused her of hugging the 16-year-old killer's mother just after convicting him of third-degree murder, a lesser charge than first degree. (Richette denied the hug.)

Mayor Frank Rizzo tagged her "Let 'Em Loose Lisa." In the press, she's been labeled "a defendant's best friend" and "a limousine liberal." Some of her fellow judges have characterized her as "a loose cannon."

All agree on one thing, however. There's never been a judge like her.

Eccentric. Trailblazing. Unpredictable. Provocative. Erratic. Brilliant. Flashy. These adjectives have been used to describe Richette, but the most frequently heard, hands down, is flamboyant.

For starters, there's the visual: dangling earrings, heavy makeup, bohemian wardrobe, bright nail polish. When Richette's on the bench, ex-Philadelphia Daily News columnist Tom Fox once wrote, you didn't know if she was going to dispense justice or read your palm.

"Everyone has their quirks," says Stretton. "Sometimes I think law would be better if it had more eccentrics. She was always a very fashionable woman, dressed to the hilt."

That Richette's appearance would even be mentioned is sexist, some say. There are plenty of eccentric male judges, but their mien is not up for discussion.

Therapist Joan Morein remembers Richette from the 1950s, when Richette took piano lessons from Morein's mother in their Penn Wynne home.

Richette, in her 20s, made a strong impression on the young teenager. "She was not like anybody I had ever met. There was this magnetism and energy. She took over a room."

Philadelphia Gay News publisher Mark Segal, who describes Richette as "a beautiful woman who keeps herself immaculate," is quick to point out that she's been a friend to the gay community since the early '70s.

"She came to our events; she did speaking engagements. It was a very big deal. To my knowledge, she was the only judge who did."

It wasn't the first pioneering move for Richette - she was one of Yale Law School's first female graduates and one of the first female judges appointed to Philadelphia's Common Pleas Court.

None of it matters when you're up against bad karma.

"It's very strange," says Dave Glancey, retired chief executive officer of the Board of Revision of Taxes and former head of the city's Democratic Party.

"It's so frequent, it seems to be more than a coincidence."


Contact staff writer Gail Shister at 215-854-2224 or gshister@phillynews.com. Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/gailshister.

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