Tom Nolan, defense attorney who took the tough cases, dies

Attorney Tom Nolan

Daily Post Staff Writer

Tom Nolan, the Palo Alto defense attorney who made a splash in any courtroom, has died at 76.

He died Tuesday (Dec. 21) after a battle with pancreatic cancer, according to Daniel Barton, his partner at Nolan, Barton, Olmos.

Nolan could be recognized from a slew of cases he was the defense attorney on during his 50-year career. He proved his capability for complex criminal litigation as a defender of Synanon. He also represented Billionaire Boy’s Club member Arben Dosti in the murder of Hedayat Eslaminia, whose conviction was overturned in 2000.

Nolan also represented Bono of the band U2 after he graffitied a fountain in Justin Herman Plaza in San Francisco in 1987.

Locally, Nolan defended Kenneth Fitzhugh, who was convicted in 2001 of murdering his wife Kristine in their Southgate neighborhood home. Residents lined up outside Palo Alto Courthouse to get a seat for the trial.

In 1991, Nolan got Cupertino mechanic Robert Carlatto acquitted of killing his estranged wife, Blair Miller-Carlotto of Los Altos.

“People respected Tom and knew he was going to fight from the bottom of his huge heart and give it all he had and go at it ethically and the right way, making friends with judges and prosecutors along the way,” Barton said.

Nolan also became known as a successful attorney in criminal theft of trade secret cases, being involved in one of the first cases of its kind, defending start-up ULSI against Intel in the 1990s.

Death penalty cases

Nolan tried a number of death penalty cases, and in later years was counsel to other attorneys trying such cases.

Beginning in 1987, Nolan was a lecturer at Stanford law, which is where he met Barton and a number of young attorneys who he would go on to mentor through the years. This includes Nolan and Barton’s other partner, Daniel Olmos.

Nolan got his start on the San Mateo County private defender panel providing representation to the poor, resulting in an East Palo Alto-based practice. No matter how big Nolan’s name got, he would still “take the call from the Stanford student in trouble.” Barton said.

Nolan’s refusal to shy away from the tougher cases may be in part credited to his mentor, Charles Garry, who was Jim Jones’ attorney.


Nolan, the son of a public school teacher, didn’t have a “fancy education,” as Barton put it, attending Sacramento City College and then obtaining his bachelor’s degree at Sacramento State. He got his law degree from UC-Davis. He moved to the Bay Area to practice law and since the 70s practiced from 600 University Ave. in downtown Palo Alto.

Nolan loved antiquarian books and enjoyed reading detective stories and crime novels.

He had many friends, including former Irish President Mary Robinson. The two met in the early 80s after Nolan worked with another Irish attorney on a death penalty case. After the case, the attorney introduced Nolan to a barrister, Robinson, according to Barton.

Nolan was also friends with a number of the prosecutors he would battle in the courtroom, and befriended some judges as well.

Nolan is survived by his wife Sue and children Sean and Heather. A memorial is to be announced.


  1. Tom Nolan was a most special human being. As an attorney, Tom Nolan combined the attributes of a super smart and street wise big brother and an angel from Heaven.

  2. Tom was an inspiration to me as a “slightly” younger lawyer. I appreciated his insights about the law, and his fighting spirit which was tempered with kindness and passion for justice. We had many lunches which were not only interesting, and fun, but I always learned something important. And he was a wonderful man.

  3. Tom was one of a kind and will be sorely missed. He did indeed take the toughest of cases and often, despite heavy odds, he prevailed. Everyone knew if Tom was on the case, it was going to be vigorously defended. Another giant has fallen.

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