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Hartford lawyer, who defended Charlie Buck in wife's murder case, dies

Hubert J. Santos, an understated but uncannily successful defense lawyer who frustrated authorities for half a century in some of the state’s most notorious criminal prosecutions, died unexpectedly after being hospitalized Monday, his law partner said. He was 76.

In addition to being one of Connecticut’s most successful lawyers, Santos was one of the best-liked. Work at law offices from Hartford to New Haven paused Tuesday as colleagues digested news of his death.

“This is a heart-breaker,” normally hard-boiled defense lawyer Hugh Keefe of New Haven said, choking back emotion.

Santos was a blue collar son of factory workers who sounded like it when he spoke — in and out of court — and who never forgot his roots even after reaching the professional stratosphere. While most defense lawyers dream of winning an acquittal in a murder trial once in a career, Santos did it repeatedly and always in cases that lived on the front pages.

“Hubert was the kind of guy who was bemused by his own success,” retired state Supreme Court justice Richard N. Palmer said. “He never shied away from a difficult case, but he wasn’t full of himself. He was street smart and could size up a case instinctively, something some of the best lawyers can’t do. And he was so credible, juries liked and trusted him.”

Santos, the son of a Portuguese father and an Italian mother, loved to eat and avoided exercise. He had been beset by a variety of ailments for years and they grew increasingly serious, resulting on sporadic hospitalizations.

He was on a restricted diet during a recent stint in rehab and confided to a visitor that he kept the delivery menu from an Italian restaurant in his room beneath a pile of writs.

“I told the doctor: ‘What do you want me to do? My mother was Italian’,” Santos said to the visitor.

“This is really sad news for all lawyers in Connecticut,” former U.S. Attorney John H. Durham said. “Hubie was one of those larger-than-life personalities who loved being in court and had a natural ability to connect with jurors and persuade judges. He was also a big part of an unfortunately fading legal culture where lawyers could fight hard against one another on behalf of their clients, but at the end of the day remain friends. Like so many others, I’ll miss him.”

Trent La Lima, his law partner, said Santos was hospitalized late Monday for the last time. He said funeral arrangements were unknown Tuesday.

“He was a giant in the legal profession,” La Lima said. “His experience and generosity made him invaluable to many young lawyers who, like me, he mentored over the years.”

Santos’ resume of cases reads like the Connecticut true crime greatest hits.

His first acquittal in a capital case came in the murder for hire case against James Hope in 1984. New London County State’s Attorney C. Robert Satti, a prosecutorial bulldog, was on the opposite side of the courtroom. Hope’s co-defendant, with his own lawyer, was tried first and convicted.

Karin Aparo came five years later. She was, the prosecution said, a 16-year old vixen who manipulated her boyfriend into murdering her mother. In one of the moments of high drama that Santos loved, he turned to Aparo at the end of his closing argument and told her gently, “It’s OK Karin. You can cry now.” She burst into tears and Santos always insisted it was unrehearsed. Whatever it was, it was enough to persuade the jury to toss aside her portrayal by the prosecution as a cold and calculating killer.

At least twice more, Santos persuaded juries not to convict in murder trials. Philandering Stonington electrician Charles Buck beat his case after being accused of killing his wife in 2010, and more recently, a jury deadlocked on a murder-for-hire charge against Tiffany Stevens in a case that raised questions about drugs, mob enforcers and transvestite prostitutes.

Interspersed among those accused of murder were politicians charged with corruption. Among them, Santos helped former Waterbury Mayor and mortician Edward Bergin Jr. beat a bribery case by persuading jurors that one of Bergin’s political associates was taking the money to support a gambling habit.

Santos negotiated a plea bargain and cooperation deal with the U.S. Attorney’s Office two decades ago for former state Treasurer Paul Sylvester that resulted in more than a dozen convictions of political associates and revealed a fissure of political corruption and that helped unravel Connecticut’s reputation for Yankee propriety.

Law enforcement typically disdains defense lawyers. But Santos’ work on the Sylvester case made him the defense lawyer most likely to get a call if a police officer should get in trouble.

“If anyone in law enforcement had a problem, the kind of consensus was the first call would go to Hubie,” said retired FBI agent Charles Urso, case agent on the Sylvester prosecution. “What he did for Paul Sylvester was extraordinary. Hubie was a problem solver. He would get resolutions.”

In 2018, Santos pulled off a legal victory few could have conceived, persuading the state Supreme Court to reverse itself and overturn the conviction of Kennedy cousin Michael Skakel for the infamous murder of his friend Martha Moxley a half-century earlier, when the two were 15-year-old neighbors in an exclusive Greenwich community.

In the Skakel case, Santos and Hope Seeley, then his partner and now a Superior Court Judge, mounted an extraordinary, international investigation that discredited parts of he state’s case against Skakel and uncovered gaping omissions in the defense presented by the original trial defense.

Santos’ ability — and credibility — was such that he was consulted by judges. He was called into an 11th hour attempt to stop the execution of serial killer Michael B. Ross. He succeeded initially, but Ross was ultimately executed. He was invariably consulted by judges and the bar associations on potential nominees to the federal and state courts. If lawyers for the Innocence Project thought someone who was wrongly convicted, they called Santos.

When he wasn’t working — which was rarely — he liked to watch the Boston Red Sox. Sometimes in recent years, he would drive his son Peter to the park and watch the game himself from a nearby hotel room.

He was a stand-out baseball player in high school, where he grew up in Enfield, and the Red Sox sent a scout to one of his games. As Santos told the story, the scout introduced himself after the game and told him he ought to consider college because pro ball wasn’t in his future.

So he played ball at the University of Hartford. His close friend and first colleague, Hartford lawyer James Wade, said Santos joined a committee years later to raise money for improvements to the school’s ball field. He cold-called called Red Sox nemesis and New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner and talked him into chipping in $10,000.

Santos leaves a son and daughter and his wife, Superior Court Judge Thelma Santos. 

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