I became interested in Richard Sprague in the mid-1980s when my friend Arthur H. Lewis told me how Sprague prosecuted the murderers of United Mine Workers official Jock Yablonski and his wife and daughter in 1970. Lewis covered the murder trial and wrote “Murder by Contract: The People v. ‘Tough Tony’ Boyle.”
Lewis’ book details how Sprague prosecuted Boyle, the United Mine Workers president who had defeated Yablonski in a recent election and subsequently ordered his underlings murder his rival.
Chuck Peruto, currently the Republican candidate for Philadelphia district attorney, told me he attended the Tony Boyle trial. Peruto, the son of another Philly legal legend, A. Charles Peruto Sr., said he was influenced greatly by Richard Sprague. He said he switched to night law school so he could attend the trial and observe Sprague in courtroom action.
“I learned more at that trial than I could have in three years of law school,” Peruto said. “I drew on the things I learned at that trial for the next 42 years.”
Peruto also said that the legal lion supported him for DA against Larry Krasner, noting that Sprague was his honorary campaign chairman before he passed away this past April at age 95.
Sprague was born in Baltimore in 1925. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy during WWII and served on submarines. He joined the Philadelphia DA Office in 1958 and became well-known as a relentless and feared prosecutor when he served from 1966 to 1974 as the first assistant DA. In 1970, he was appointed as a special prosecutor and won convictions against the murderers of Jock Yablonski and his family. Sprague later became a congressional counsel and then went into private practice, defending many high-profile clients.
Mark A. Bradley, the author of a new book on the Yablonski murders, “Blood Runs Coal: The Yablonski Murders and the Battle for the United Mine Workers of America,” told me that Sprague was a throwback to a different time when notable trial lawyers were featured regularly on the front pages of national newspapers.
“By the time of the slayings, he had supervised or handled over 15,000 criminal cases, more than 450 of which were murder cases,” Bradley said. “His long string of sensational convictions of gang members, blackmailers and cop killers earned him a reputation as the most feared and respected prosecutor in Pennsylvania, if not the nation. A Philadelphia judge who witnessed Sprague in action marveled over his ability to pounce on his opponent’s witnesses and tear their stories apart. “Some men are like a tiger,” he observed, “Dick Sprague is like a whole cage of tigers – leashed and caged, thank God. But you can feel the power.”
Bradley said that Sprague’s methods were unorthodox but lethal. He never scribbled a note. While other lawyers focused on their legal pads, he watched the defendant, looking for telltale signs of guilt or listening for contradictions. He retained every word of testimony and was absolutely humorless in the courtroom. He delivered his closing arguments to juries in his booming voice without a scrap of paper or a break in a sentence. He conveyed to them his burning sense of indignation.
“I owe Dick a great debt. He graciously answered all my many questions and allowed me to use an office in his law firm while I combed through his case files on the three murders,” Bradley said. “Even in his 90s, he had a razor-sharp mind. He was still able to recall the smallest details about the killings. His prosecutions of the Yablonski family killers catapulted him onto the national stage, but he never forgot the horrors of what happened in that isolated farmhouse on that snowy New Year’s Eve in 1969. I believe he was enormously pleased that he was able to bring justice to the killers and those behind them and to deliver a degree of peace to the surviving members of the Yablonski family.”
Bradley also marveled that Sprague had no political ambitions, which is a rarity in a big city prosecutor’s office.
“My father was a lawyer’s lawyer who was a zealous and fearless advocate for all his clients. He was meticulous and painstaking in his investigation and preparation of cases. He was also a devoted public servant who served his country and the citizens of the commonwealth and the city with distinction,” said Thomas A. Sprague, his son and partner at Sprague and Sprague. “I felt privileged to work with him for over 30 years, and our family was blessed to have him in our lives for so long. In his 95 years, my father lived a long, full and fulfilling life.”
Paul Davis’ Crime Beat column appears here each week. He can be contacted via pauldavisoncrime.com.