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Boat's Battle



John Boatwright III used to swagger into courtrooms like a lion entering a Roman arena: confident, brash and hungry. Whether it was in the heat of litigation or in the chilly brinkmanship of plea negotiations, his forthright manner often irked opponents. Some things change; others never do.

His walk is much slower. And whether he admits it or not, his softer side occasionally forces its way to the surface, only to be snatched back like a kid who shares his ice cream and immediately regrets it. In the old days, he could dish out a courtroom pummeling, and all it took to revive him was a cold beer and a cigarette. Now, there's no beer, no smokes; just Boat, in a tiresome battle that won't end.

There isn't much to say about hepatitis C, other than there is no cure, and it is a miserable, life-altering disease. Cigarettes are verboten when you're on the liver transplant list. And drinking, for Boat, ended in January '06. "I'd had 54 years to slurp up all I could. I had my share and some for others," he says. By that August, he could barely get out of bed. "Up to the summer of '06, I felt fine."

Now, barely more than a year later, he sits sock-footed in jeans and a flannel shirt in the living room of his home near Chippenham Medical Center, a dark red blotch from an iron transfusion swallowing his right forearm.

Boatwright is on short-term disability from his post as capital defender for Virginia's central region. Since the office first opened its doors in 2002 -- offering legal representation to those facing capital offenses — Boat has led it. Turnover has been a big issue, as it always is when the hours are long, the pay seems grossly inadequate, and the clients are people like Ricky Javon Gray (now facing the death penalty for murdering the Harvey family on Jan. 1, 2005).

He's paler, smaller, but he's lost none of his puckish bravado. His wife, Allison, a paralegal, comes home during her lunch break to check on him. "If you can think of it, I've had it," he says. "It" includes iron transfusions, colonoscopies and laser surgery for internal bleeding, to name a few. When his liver got frighteningly sluggish, doctors added a shunt to bypass the liver. In the process, they found he had a 40 percent blockage in one artery, so he underwent another procedure to place a stent in the blocked artery.

One thing hasn't changed: Boat's insistence that all is fine, and he's still in the lead, although that has become a relative issue. "Two days after they put that shunt in, I hadn't felt that good in 20 years," he says.

Although his hands shake a little and his voice isn't as loud, it's the same strident one that was easily recognizable on the third floor of the John Marshall Courthouse. In the 1980s, Boat made his bones in criminal court working for attorney Michael Morchower, known then as "Magic Mike" for his ability to get acquittals and lighter sentences for many clients who might have deserved much worse.

In 1987, Boatwright struck out on his own and formed Boatwright & Linka with attorney Bill Linka, a partnership that lasted until 2002 when Boatwright was named Virginia's first capital public defender.

"You'll find as many who love him as hate him," says Linka, whose firm now practices under the name Richmond Criminal Law. "But regardless of what they think of him, he's always well prepared."

Although Boatwright has spent the last 25 years representing people who could've shared a myriad of diseases, from the common cold to HIV, he has no idea where he contracted hepatitis C. "The only way you can get it is through infected blood products," he says.

It's possible he got it through vaccinations while in basic training for the U.S. Army in 1972. "You lined up front to back, and you rolled up your sleeve. They came along with a [needle] gun and went 'bam' to you, 'bam' to the next guy, and the next guy. Some bled." Because the disease can incubate over years, there is no scientific way to determine where or how he became infected.

"I don't care how I got it," Boatwright says. "I feel good. I'm fine." S

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