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Bench Warmer



It was an indirect but powerfully life-altering brush with the law that first brought a teenage Kim O'Donnell to Virginia three decades ago.

After Kevin, her brother, was convicted of stealing the family car and was sent to Fork Union Military Academy, the Florida native and her family began making regular trips up north to visit.

That trip took them through the small town of Floyd.

"My parents just loved the country that they drove through," says O'Donnell, 47, who retires home to Floyd at the end of this month, stepping down from her place as a Richmond Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court judge. She's served in that capacity for 13 years, establishing a reputation on the bench for being as much an arbiter and dispenser of justice as an advocate for the children over whom she presides.

Watching the pain of her brother's ordeal didn't motivate her to seek out a career in law, says O'Donnell, who graduated from the University of Richmond law school, but it definitely informs her empathy from the bench.

"I certainly know what it's like to live in a house with drug and alcohol issues," says O'Donnell, who pioneered the city's drug-court program, and who takes as a compliment a comparison of her bench style to that of a school guidance counselor or friendly psychiatrist. It seems hardly a stretch that she also holds a master's degree in pastoral studies from Loyola University.

The Richmond Juvenile Drug Treatment Court is an alternative court setting designed to respond to the needs of nonviolent, substance-abusing juveniles.

"The only reason I have done this work is my commitment to helping people," she says. And of the people -- many of them children — she's had before her through the years: "I've tried to change the direction of their lives."

Tall, with an athletic, purposeful stride, O'Donnell is an imposing figure, even with the bit of white lace collaring that softens her black judge's robes. But when she speaks, it's with a deliberate softness. Often she leans in toward defendants, almost as though she's uncomfortable with the bench and dais that separates them.

Her office speaks loudly — sometimes very loudly — of her closeness to the children she often must punish. On one afternoon, alt-noise-country-rock band the Kings of Leon blast from a small boom box in her chambers. After Tropical Storm Gaston, O'Donnell didn't allow workers to repair water damage to her office; instead, she let children decorate it with crayons and paint the areas where wallpaper had peeled away.

She acknowledges that a judge's duties don't extend beyond interpreting the law, with a mind given only to "resolve disputes in the coldest way." Helping people, she says, "is really not your job."

But helping children and families is what she's tried to do.

O'Donnell's brother died six years ago, she says, a victim of his addictions: "It ruined his life, no question."

She doesn't like to see youthful indiscretions ruin lives, but knows that too many of Richmond's children growing up in poor housing projects are already firmly on the path toward hard lives and frequent legal interaction as adults.

Former Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney David Hicks hired O'Donnell as a city prosecutor after she'd served nearly a decade as a public defender advocating mostly for juvenile offenders. He knew her well for her compassion and integrity, and saw in her the makings of a fine juvenile judge.

That job was not his to hand out, but both he and O'Donnell agreed that it would be far more likely for her to make the jump to judge if she came from the prosecutor's office.

Nine months later, in November 1994, O'Donnell was tapped for the bench. She was 34 years old.

"Kim's just dedicated, smart, good people," Hicks says. "She's not been afraid of having brains and a heart. Too often that's missing from lawyering and the bench."

Soon it will be missing again.

The final decision to retire came this past January while she thought she was making arrangements to leave Floyd behind. She'd been settling final arrangements of the estate of her father, who'd died in 2005.

On those trips back, "I realized more and more that it was my home," she says. "It was a clear awareness of what I needed to do. It was a painful realization."

Once she's settled into her Floyd home, O'Donnell says she's more likely to pick up a creative writing pen, a guitar or drum sticks than the law.

"When I took the job, I said I'd do it every day I can do it in the way that it should be done. I'm choosing not to do it anymore," she says. "I feel like I've spent a lot of time nourishing other people's needs, and I feel like it's time to nourish myself." S

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