Criminal defense work can be one of the hardest fields of legal practice. Clients can be difficult, payments can be erratic and the general public can be disdainful. To be successful, a good criminal defense attorney has to have a passion for the justice system, a quick mind and thick skin.
Susanne Gustin has this mix of passion, intellect and confidence which has enabled her to win some of Utah’s toughest criminal cases.
Although a fourth-generation lawyer, Gustin admits to going to law school by default. “My great-grandfather, grandfather and father were all attorneys so it was the world I knew,” she said. “My dad knew that the law could be a grueling profession so he didn’t push any of my sisters or me in that direction. I wasn’t expected to go into law, but I was expected to work hard. My mother was a vice president of First Interstate Bank even though she only had a high school education. She got to that position through hard work. My two sisters and I were held to the same standard.”
Gustin’s path toward a law career began as an undergraduate at the University of Utah where she studied political science and Middle East studies. While in college, Gustin had the opportunity to travel to and explore the Middle East.
“The entire trip was fascinating,” Gustin recalls. “I was able to travel to and study the politics and history of the Middle East before it was on everyone’s radar as it is today. Coming from America and the culture we have, it was eye-opening to travel with armed guards. That’s not something we experience in this country.”
After her experience overseas, Gustin – already interested in the region – added a minor in Hebrew to her college resume.
After graduation, Gustin remained at the University of Utah to pursue her law degree. While she enjoyed her studies, no particular field of law stood out to her. Gustin began with a short stint in civil work before being offered a job at Salt Lake Legal Defender, the public defense office for Salt Lake.
“The public defender’s office is fast-paced, never boring and produces some crazy stories,” Gustin said. She was thrown into the courtroom and immediately began trying cases, at times three per week, in the justice courts.
“That kind of experience is invaluable,” she said.
While at Salt Lake Legal Defender, Gustin argued cases ranging from misdemeanors to major felonies, but soon found her niche and the calling that would dominate the rest of her career – trying rape and child sex cases. “Child and sex abuse cases are difficult,” Gustin said. “In the public defender’s office, when you win one, you can return to the office the next day and find five new sex cases sitting on your chair.”
While she continues to defend other cases, Gustin has become known primarily for her defense of accused sex criminals. As a woman operating in a male-dominated world, Gustin has found that her gender helps her as she investigates sex crimes on behalf of her clients. “Generally the alleged victims are women and children,” she said. “A lot of times these witnesses are more willing to open up to a woman. I can press further with questions to find the truth. Many of my clients are specifically looking for a female attorney.”
After five years with Salt Lake Legal Defender, Gustin left the office to open her own firm.
In the early days of her private practice, Gustin recalls sitting at her desk with nothing to do – something that never happened at the public defender’s office. I loved the frenetic energy of the public defender’s office and it took three months for my brain to slow down and get used to a much slower pace.” She missed her friends and there was the pressure to pay the overhead. “But, there were advantages too,” Gustin said. “In private practice, you have more time to focus on each case.”
She has also handled high-profile cases. “The press is overwhelmingly not on your client’s side,” Gustin said. “In the very rare case when the press is on your client’s side, you have to run with it.”
“I have a reputation for handling major crimes,” she explained. “All the time, I get phone calls from people saying things like ‘oh, my son’s accused of shoplifting, I’m sure this is too small for you to help with since you handle the big cases on TV, but can you recommend someone?’ The truth is that 99.999 percent of my cases are low-profile and a lot of them are misdemeanor cases.”
One of Gustin’s high-profile cases was State of Utah vs. David James Bell, which not only serves as a career victory for Gustin but also as a victory for the American ideal of innocent until proven guilty.
In 2008, David “DJ” Bell was accused of kidnapping his neighbor’s children during an Independence Day party. Bell maintained the children had, just moments before walked over to his house and he was about to take them back home. The evidence against Bell was slim, but the impact on Bell was not.
Bell, a gay man, and his partner were horribly beaten by the neighbors in what one attorney described as an “alcohol-fueled mob scene.”
“It was a hate crime with no connection to any kidnapping,” Gustin explains. “Drunk neighbors beat a man within an inch of his life. What happened was so disgusting that the entire community rallied around him. It was like a scene out of a movie where a huge crowd of people waited in the hallway for the verdict. Loud cheers erupted when Bell exited the courtroom after being acquitted.”
“Without Susanne, I don’t know where I would be today,” DJ Bell says. “Possibly in prison, serving a life sentence for an uncommitted crime. Possibly dead. She helped save my life, and gave back what was taken from me when I was wrongfully accused, my dignity.
“Susanne is brilliant, I can rightfully attest to that,” Bell continues. “She is not afraid to ask the tough questions, Her attention to detail is only matched by her quick wit. Her ability to catch someone being less-than-truthful is uncanny.
“These things are only a small part of what makes up this amazing force to be reckoned with whom we call Susanne. Take, for instance, the addition of her wardrobe,” Bell continues. “Coming from the viewpoint of a seasoned female impersonator, there are things in her closet that would make any drag queen green with envy (and I am!). The moment I met Susanne and saw her cute strappy red pumps, I knew I needed her to represent me. When I mentioned how cute I thought her designer bag was (rhymes with Shlouie-Vuitton), she smiled and asked, ‘You know designers?’ I rolled my eyes and grinned.”
Gustin said Bell is the only client who has asked to borrow her shoes.
“Susanne is the first attorney I would call if it were me in the government’s crosshairs,” said Roger Kraft, co-counsel on State v. Bell.
This past fall, Gustin was one of two attorneys to represent Dr. Martin MacNeill in the case that has become known as the Facelift Murder. Seven years ago, Michele MacNeill was found dead in her bathtub. Prosecutors accused MacNeill of overdosing his wife and drowning her in the bathtub. While the original autopsy concluded that she died a natural death, MacNeill’s behavior following his wife’s death led many to believe otherwise. Two weeks after Michele MacNeill passed away, he moved his longtime mistress into their home.
The case was unnerving to much of the community. MacNeill was a doctor; a lawyer; a prominent member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; a father of eight children who seemed to live a picture-perfect life.
MacNeill was found guilty Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013. “On a continuum of good, better and best, Susanne is in the best category of attorney. Her passion and determination to vigorously defend her clients, and a sincere concern for their personal well-being, frequently keeps her working into the wee hours of the morning,” said Randall K. Spencer, her co-counsel on the MacNeill case.
Gustin’s work as a legal trailblazer is no surprise to people who knew her growing up. At age 10, Gustin and her friends played for Utah’s first girls’ soccer team. “In elementary school we played soccer with the boys at recess who wanted us on their soccer team. The soccer association would not allow us to play on a boy’s team, so we formed a girl’s team and played all boy teams for the first year,” Gustin said. “We were the first girl’s team in Utah, but now there are literally thousands of teams.” Gustin has also skied since age 5 and swam competitively in junior high and high school.
A proud mom to a 9-year-old son, Gustin’s law career has impacted her role as a parent. “A large percentage of the clients I have represented have drug and alcohol problems,” she said. “When he is older, I intend to take my son to watch drug court to hear the stories of addicts, so that he, hopefully, chooses not to go down that path.”
As if her media profile wasn’t enough to remind people of Gustin’s law practice, she has one of the best legal emails possible. “People make fun of me for still being with AOL,” she said, “but I just can’t give up [email protected] People never forget it!”
Gustin is grateful for the women lawyers who are her mentors from her years at the public defender’s office: Lisa Remal, the Hon. Vernice Trease and the Hon. Brooke C. Wells. She also is thankful for her male mentors, former public defender Richard P. Mauro and the legendary Ronald J. Yengich.