Numa Bertel Jr., former director of the New Orleans public defender program, dies at age 89
Published: Thursday, September 20, 2012
New Orleans Times-Picayune
Numa Bertel Jr., an assistant to Orleans Parish District Attorney Jim Garrison during his investigation of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination who then led the Orleans Parish indigent defender program for 30 years, died Saturday of heart problems at St. Anthony’s Nursing Home in Metairie. He was 89.
A lifelong New Orleanian who earned undergraduate and law degrees at Loyola University, Mr. Bertel had a private practice from 1946 to 1966, when he joined Garrison’s office as an executive assistant. Mr. Bertel became part of Garrison’s inquiry into the 1963 assassination. He was sent to Washington, D.C., to try to get the federal government to release evidence, including the autopsy report and the gun fired by Lee Harvey Oswald.
Mr. Bertel was unsuccessful. Clay Shaw, the only person brought to trial in the investigation, was acquitted by a jury that deliberated less than an hour.
Mr. Bertel was a consultant on “JFK,” the movie that Oliver Stone made about Garrison’s inquiry, and a character in the 1991 film. He was portrayed by Wayne Knight, who went on to play Newman in the classic situation comedy “Seinfeld.”
In the district attorney’s office, Mr. Bertel prosecuted members of the Black Panther Party who were charged with aggravated battery and attempted murder of several police officers. They were acquitted.
In December 1974, Mr. Bertel was appointed director of the program that defends people who can’t afford attorneys.
Moving there wasn’t a radical change, said Christine Truxillo, one of Mr. Bertel’s nieces.
“He had always worked with the criminal element, and he liked helping the less fortunate,” she said.
Bette Cole, a lawyer in that office for five years, said Mr. Bertel was a natural for the job.
Working in that office, where everyone had too much to do and not enough money to do it with, was “like being in the whirlwind,” Cole said.
But Mr. Bertel “was always a calming influence on everybody,” she said. “It was always tumultuous, but you could sit in his office and settle down.”
One of the first people Mr. Bertel hired as a clerk was law student Calvin Johnson, who later was a lawyer in that office and a Criminal District Court judge. Johnson credited Mr. Bertel as not only a mentor but also someone who helped foster the diversity of the local legal profession by hiring and training fledgling attorneys who went on to become lawyers and judges.
“He was a guy who was instrumental in terms of what the practice looks like in New Orleans,” Johnson said. “You could sense that he was doing the right thing.”
And he was proud of his ability as a trumpeter, said Bridget Daniels, who worked for Mr. Bertel as a paralegal.
He loved music, and he kept at it, she said, even after Al Hirt beat him out to be first trumpeter in Jesuit High School’s band.