HARPSWELL — Howard F. O’Brien III was a prominent attorney in Portland who took on a broad range of cases, from traffic violations to homicides and other violent felonies.

Though his work was an important part of his life, it was nothing compared with the love and devotion he had for his wife and their six children.

Mr. O’Brien died unexpectedly Sunday at age 61.

“I’m just so sad,” his wife, Esther O’Brien, said Wednesday. “He was such a wonderful person. What am I going to do without my sweetie?”

Mr. O’Brien was a trial attorney for the Strike, Goodwin & O’Brien law firm in Portland. He joined the firm in 2000 and worked there until he was diagnosed with a brain tumor a few years ago.

Cliff Strike, president of the firm, remembers Mr. O’Brien as an “outstanding trial attorney” who was highly respected by judges and his peers.

Strike recalled one of Mr. O’Brien’s biggest wins in the courtroom, around 2004, when he defended a woman who was accused of murdering her husband by stabbing him in the chest with a knife. After a long, high-profile trial, the woman was found not guilty.

“He generally connected really well with juries,” Strike said of Mr. O’Brien. “He had a lot of respect from the judges and a lot of respect for the police officers he worked with. He was one of those court fixtures. You knew he was in the room.”

Mr. O’Brien made his mark working as an assistant district attorney for Cumberland County. He worked for the District Attorney’s Office for eight years. Strike recalled the days when he battled Mr. O’Brien in the courtroom.

“Howard was very difficult to deal with when he was a prosecutor, because once he drew a line in the sand, that was it,” Strike said. “It’s one of the reasons why I hired him. I was tired of beating my head against the wall.”

Deputy District Attorney Meg Elam remembered Mr. O’Brien on Tuesday as a tough trial attorney who lived by the maxim: “You can disagree without being disagreeable.”

“What made Howard so effective was that he was well-liked and instilled a sense of confidence in juries by his manner of presenting cases and his personal demeanor,” Elam said.

Randall Bates, a close friend who met Mr. O’Brien while working as an intern in the District Attorney’s Office, said he was a tremendous defense attorney who fought hard for his clients.

“He would fight all the battles, and object all the time, and fight tooth and nail with the prosecutor,” Bates said. “It was never personal. At the end of the day, he shook the prosecutor’s hand and moved on to the next case.”

When Mr. O’Brien left the courtroom, he immersed himself in his family and church.

Esther O’Brien, his wife for 32 years, talked about her husband’s varied interests, such as reading, music and playing the guitar. He also was a master bridge player who competed in tournaments and was active in a local bridge club.

His wife said he loved to travel. She reminisced about the years her family left for vacation on the day after Christmas. They traveled to places such as Italy, Portugal, Scotland, Germany, Paris, Ireland and Austria.

She emphasized their closeness, saying their love and faith set a strong foundation for their marriage. The O’Briens were active in the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Portland, where he was a deacon.

After Mr. O’Brien’s long battle to recover from the brain tumor diagnosed a few years ago, the couple began to find joy again in the things they loved to do together.

On Sunday mornings, they would talk and laugh about their lives. Esther O’Brien said that on the morning he died, her husband came downstairs dressed sharply and clean-shaven.

“He looked so handsome and well,” she said. “I went right over to him and said it was so good to see him. I gave him a big hug and a kiss. … If it had to be his last day, it was a nice day.” 

Staff Writer Melanie Creamer can be contacted at 791-6361 or at:

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