Giant in Legal Community Takes His Life - 8 News NOW

George Knapp, Investigative Reporter

Giant in Legal Community Takes His Life

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(Jan. 20) -- A giant in the Southern Nevada legal community has died. Former federal judge Harry Claiborne took his own life Monday.

Claiborne's career was fraught with controversy, which climaxed with his impeachment and removal from the federal bench. "I will continue to fight until my good name is cleared." Harry Claiborne did continue to fight, long after he was impeached by the United States Senate, even after serving time in prison. The Nevada legal community welcomed him back to the fold anyway, allowing him to continue practicing law right up until the end.

In his day, Claiborne was Nevada's preeminent defense attorney, a role model for Oscar Goodman and others. He defended the powerful and the notorious, but also the weak and penniless. His appointment to the federal bench in 1978 brought Claiborne into the crosshairs of Las Vegas FBI Chief Joe Yablonsky, who was amazed that a judge was so close to the likes of once ruthless casino boss Benny Binion.

"I was told Claiborne had lunch four or five times a week with Binion. In no other place in the country would a federal judge be best friends with a convicted murderer," Yablonsky said.

In 1980, the FBI got a tip from fugitive brothel baron Joe Conforte, then on the lam in Brazil. He offered to serve up Claiborne on a silver platter. Conforte told the feds he paid 30 grand in bribes to Claiborne, but the judge stiffed him. Claiborne was tried for bribery but the jury didn't believe Conforte about the bribes. A second trial resulted in a conviction for tax evasion.

Claiborne and his supporters fought on, but the judge was impeached and went to prison. When he got out, he returned to private practice and represented the Ted Binion estate after Binion's murder. The case brought him face to face with two of his protégés, who got a tongue lashing from the country-twanged courtroom shark.

In Claiborne's words, "I've practiced law in this state for 52 years. I've handled more criminal cases and defended more constitutional rights cases than you will if you live to be 150-years-old, so don't accuse me of prosecuting anybody."

Even in his eighties, Claiborne fought on. A note left by his body reportedly explained that he didn't want to fight anymore.

Harry Claiborne was reportedly fighting a losing battle against cancer. He was 86. Memorial services are set for Friday at 3 p.m. at Palm's Chapel on Eastern near Warm Springs.

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