Shields, a small-town GOP mayor and criminal defense attorney whose controversial side cases included a court battle that knocked down Philadelphia's effort at enacting gun-control laws, died while skydiving in South Jersey.
His main parachute failed to open, authorities said, and his emergency chute failed to open completely near Cross Keys Airport in Williamstown. An autopsy Saturday found that he died of multiple injuries, said Bernie Weisenfeld, a spokesman for the Gloucester County Prosecutor's Office.
Detectives planned to turn the case over to the Federal Aviation Administration after a scheduled meeting with the agency Saturday night, Weisenfeld said.
Though Shields was only 45, the burly and broad-framed Haverford High School graduate with a salt-and-pepper beard, cache of high-speed toys, and soft spot for Bob Dylan and Jackson Browne, had become known as one who lived life - and defended his convictions - to the extreme.
"He seemed like a bit of a free spirit, and pursuing with gusto that which he believed in," said Philadelphia lawyer George Bochetto, who sparred with Shields in a case that sought to enhance the city's power to enact gun-control laws. Shields had opposed the city's efforts on behalf of the National Rifle Association.
"It may not have always made for polite politics or perfect courtroom decorum," Bochetto said of Shields' boisterous reputation, "but he certainly believed in his causes, and he certainly put everything he had in them."
Longtime Delaware County Republican lawyer and politician G. Guy Smith virtually echoed Bochetto's assessment.
Shields was mayor of the 860-person borough of Rutledge, near Swarthmore. His interest in politics did not derive from ideology, nor did the legal cases he chose to pursue.
"He took on causes not just because people came to him," Smith said, "but because he thought there was a sense of right of what was needed to be done. He had that passion for upholding the law - even in difficult circumstances."
Smith has practiced law for 41 years in Media, where Shields also ran his one-man office. Skydiving, he said, was a big deal for Shields, who adored the adrenaline rush of a free fall. But so was the law.
His highest-profile cases dealt with politically charged issues:
Last year, Shields won a federal appellate court ruling in favor of antiabortion activist Michael Marcavage, who had been arrested in 2007 while protesting on the sidewalk near the Liberty Bell. The court ruled that Marcavage's free-speech rights had been violated.
Also last year, he successfully defended a defamation case in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court against a man who had distributed leaflets claiming that City Councilman Jack Kelly backed a "homosexual agenda which would promote sodomy to our youth." Judge Albert J. Snite Jr. threatened to arrest Shields at one point for disregarding an order during opening statements.
In a 2005 case, a Philadelphia judge threw out all criminal charges against antigay street activists whom Shields was representing.
A shameless addict of all things fast, Shields often tried to persuade friends to join him on skydives, said one who always refused, Robert Bohne, of Brookhaven.
About a week ago, when the pair ran into each other at a Prospect Park bar they often visited after work, Shields was showing off pictures of a new high-speed motorbike he had just bought. That was in addition to the Porsche he also owned.
Bohne and Shields were unlikely friends: Shields would write archconservative letters to the editor of their local newspaper; Bohne would counter with liberal rebuttals. (On his Facebook page, Bohne lists among his activities and interests: "Telling Dick Cheney to shut the hell up.")
But when they met for the first time at a bar a few years back, they hit it off, partly because Shields had a good sense of humor and they both appreciated Dylan music.
"He was a very nice guy," said Bohne, an Amtrak traffic controller who was stunned to learn of his pal's death in the newspaper Saturday morning. "He was a character. I didn't agree with him, but he was still a really nice guy."
Contact staff writer Maria Panaritis at 215-854-2431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Staff writer Monica Yant Kinney contributed to this article.