WILKES-BARRE — Renowned Luzerne County defense attorney William Ruzzo died Saturday morning at Geisinger Community Medical Center in Scranton. He was 77.
A retired Luzerne County public defender, Ruzzo worked on numerous high-profile cases, including George Banks, who shot and killed 13 people on Sept. 25, 1982, in Wilkes-Barre and Jenkins Township.
Ruzzo was also part of the defense team for Mark Ciavarella, a former Luzerne County judge sentenced to 28 years behind bars for his part in the so-called “Kids for Cash” scandal that rocked Luzerne County.
In addition, Ruzzo helped defend Eric Frein, convicted of killing Cpl. Bryon Dickson outside the Blooming Grove state police barracks in Pike County and seriously wounding Trooper Alex Douglass.
Attorney Al Flora was a longtime friend of Ruzzo’s and the two worked together on several cases. Flora said funeral arrangements for Ruzzo will be handled through the McLaughlin Funeral Home, Wilkes-Barre.
“I was with him when he died,” Flora said. “He died at 7:30 (Saturday) morning.”
Flora said Ruzzo was at the Wayne County Prison on Thursday for a meeting with a client. He said Ruzzo collapsed and was taken to Wayne County Memorial Hospital and later transferred to Geisinger CMC in Scranton.
Flora said Ruzzo suffered a massive intracranial bleed and was placed on a respirator. Flora said he never regained consciousness
”I talked to him on Wednesday,” Flora said. “We go way back.”
Flora said he took Ruzzo under his wing when Ruzzo entered law school.
“Everybody knows he was a Yankee fan, but he was an individual who simply lived the law,” Flora said. “He truly believed in the Constitution and that the rights of every individual should be protected.”
Flora said Ruzzo was a fearless advocate for the downtrodden — those in society who have been vanquished.
“He fought for them and their rights,” he said. “He believed they were entitled to protection under our Constitution. He was a very compassionate, brilliant attorney. He could cite cases off the top of his head.”
Flora said Ruzzo has three children, two sons and a daughter.
Ruzzo was living at Provincial Towers, South Main Street, Wilkes-Barre, according to his colleague.
Fighting back tears, Flora noted: “I haven’t slept for two nights. He will be missed by many.”
Attorney Mark Singer, a public defender and a former assistant district attorney, called Ruzzo’s passing “a great loss.”
“He and I defended two death penalty cases together,” Singer recalled. “He was a friend, a mentor and a great, great attorney who found his calling later in life.”
“He quickly made an impact,” Singer noted. “He was the foremost expert on the defense of the death penalty in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and perhaps the entire country. I was glad to have known him. He made us all better lawyers. He will be missed.”
Ruzzo along with Attorney John Donovan, a public defender, represented John Michaels who, if convicted of murder and arson charges, faced life in prison.
Michaels was accused of setting a blaze to a boarding house on East Columbus Avenue, Pittston, in February 2004. Loretta Zampetti died in the blaze.
Prosecutors alleged Michaels intentionally set the fire after being evicted.
After a five-day trial in January 2005, a Luzerne County jury acquitted Michaels of all charges.
When Michaels, who spent nearly a year in prison, was set free hours after the verdict, Ruzzo — out of his own pocket — gave him money to help restart his life.
Retired judge Joe Cosgrove, 61, said Ruzzo was the most non-judgmental person he ever met.
“He was dedicated to preserve our civil rights and our civil liberties,” said Cosgrove. “He will be deeply missed.”