From Center City to the Jersey Shore, Daniel M. Preminger was a scene stealer, whether making his closing argument at a high-profile murder trial, strolling along Chestnut Street in his black cape with a red satin lining, or telling stories to guests who stayed at his Cape May bed and breakfast.
A flamboyant former criminal defense attorney, he was not part of the conversation. He was the conversation, said his wife, friends, and former coworkers, recalling his sharp wit, strong opinions, and his ability to captivate listeners.
Mr. Preminger, 70, died Saturday, April 8. The New York native had Parkinson’s disease. A memorial service is to be scheduled for the summer.
Mr. Preminger was as passionate as he was thorough in defending his clients, and was aware that he did not always please those around him.
In a 1976 interview with Inquirer reporter Jonathan Neumann, Mr. Preminger described himself as “aggressive, boisterous, hot-tempered, abrasive, sharp, and eccentric.”
“I may even be obnoxious at times. But none of that bothers me,” Mr. Preminger said. “All I care about is that people believe I am honest. I’m not going to put on that Victorian image stuff. I’m going to be me.”
Mr. Preminger, then 29 and a 1971 graduate of George Washington Law School, had quit his job as a Philadelphia public defender to represent 15-year-old Andre Martin, who was charged with fatally shooting city Police Officer John Trettin. The Public Defender’s Office did not handle homicides at the time. A friend asked Mr. Preminger to take the case. Prosecutors were seeking the death penalty. That afternoon, Mr. Preminger told his boss, Benjamin Lerner, that he was quitting.
Lerner, who became a judge and now is the city’s deputy managing director for criminal justice, understood the decision.
Two others charged in the case cooperated with prosecutors and testified that Martin had been smoking marijuana and popping pills when he said he wanted to kill a cop -- shooting Trettin from an apartment window.
In an interview Monday, Neumann recalled that Mr. Preminger aggressively cross-examined the witnesses as if he were a prosecutor. One of the witnesses admitted that he lied to police and during his testimony.
Still, jurors found Martin guilty after deliberating for a few hours. He was sentenced to life in prison after the jury split on the death penalty. Martin remains jailed in Graterford Prison.
Neumann recalled that Martin came from a poor family and that Mr. Preminger did not take the case for money. “He was doing it for passion,” Neumann said.
Lerner agreed that Mr. Preminger was passionate about his clients.
“Danny was a unique, charismatic, and sometimes infuriating, but mostly an electrifying trial lawyer and public defender,” Lerner said. He cared deeply about public defenders and was generous with his time in helping train young lawyers.
John Packel worked with Mr. Preminger when they were public defenders.
“He was a smart and witty guy,” said Packel, now retired. “He cared about his clients, which is very important for a public defender.”
In 1989, Mr. Preminger represented the cofounder of the drug gang Junior Black Mafia. At least one judge held him in contempt of court after Mr. Preminger failed to show up at two hearings in misdemeanor court, which created concern among defense attorneys who believed they would be unfairly sanctioned. Preminger argued that he had notified the court of scheduling conflicts in the same way he had done for 16 years.
Another judge kept a stock of pencils to throw at Mr. Preminger rather than jumping off the bench to punch him, his wife said, and Lerner said it said was true.
As Mr. Preminger built his reputation as a trial lawyer, he collected eccentric clothing, including his cape and fur coat. Lerner said there are not many men who could pull off wearing a full-length fur.
“It looked extremely luxurious and extremely warm,” Lerner said, admitting he secretly wished he could look so good in fur. “He looked terrific in it.”
In 1977, Mr. Preminger met his wife-to-be, Barbara, while buying a Rafael raincoat. She was managing the store and he initiated conversation that led to their first date at a French restaurant. He later called her and played Fleetwood Mac’s “You Make Loving Fun.” Two years later, they married.
The couple traveled extensively, including to Europe, Asia, and South America. In 1986, they bought a summer home in Cape May while Mr. Preminger practiced law in Philadelphia and New Jersey.
In 1989, the Premingers bought a guest house in Cape May that they ran for 10 years. In 2002, they bought Kings Cottage Bed & Breakfast, also in Cape May, which his wife still runs. Her husband, she said, would entertain guests with his stories as they sat on the front porch.
They shared a love of dogs, owning three white Samoyeds -- Majestic, Noble, and Comet.
Besides his wife, Mr. Preminger is survived by a brother.
A private service was held last month.
Contributions in Mr. Preminger’s memory may be made to Animal Outreach, 600 Park Blvd., West Cape May, N.J. 08204.
Condolences may be posted at spilkerfuneralhome.com.