News & Features » Miscellany

It's been a year of private reversals and public trials for Richmond's best-known defense

David Baugh Just Wants You to Listen


It is a cold Monday night when David Baugh emerges from his Oregon Hill law office dressed in a gray suit and camel-colored overcoat. He unlocks the door for me.

With a handshake Baugh conveys confidence and control, staple charms he uses on anyone in or out of court. This ability has become second nature to the famed criminal-defense lawyer. So much so that he seems positively unsure about how to ease himself, how to appear casual for the Alicia Keys concert tonight. He manages a smile, though, and holds up the tickets.

David Baugh seems in the midst of breaking out, of finding freedom. It is the sort of thing that happens in anybody's midlife crisis, when they suddenly just let loose.

At some point everyone finally reaches a point where we tell our story. For someone like Baugh, who gushes disdain for Christmas music, Don Ho, Project Exile, DNA testing of the accused and John Ashcroft, it should be easy to confess. It's not. Yet in his rare quiet moments, it is easy to understand that the real reason Baugh tells his story is that he needs to.

Baugh doesn't believe in small talk. After we've met a few times for interviews, he calls me up. "I think we need to sit down and go over the Constitution," he says, in a voice that sounds like Barry White. "The Bill of Rights."

With Baugh, there is always more talk to come. He delivers it like he would a lesson, with the kind of velvety assurance that it is something useful. To interview him is to be held captive. He gives an impression of such intellectual intensity that you almost feel pinned, helplessly, to your seat.

Baugh is famous for his storytelling. He's also famous as a guy who doesn't shy away from a fight — a decade ago Baugh got into a fistfight in court with then-Commonwealth's Attorney Joe Morrissey. The brawl landed both attorneys in jail for a few days. Baugh also has been held in contempt of court six times.

And he has been successful enough at what he does that his client list reads like a phone book. In 25 years Baugh has defended an array of people for a slew of alleged crimes ranging from the petty to the perverse.

He's taken money for his services from singers Rick James and D'Angelo; he's made the government pay him to fight for killers like members of the Newtowne Gang and Eugene Friend, whose family was convicted of running a murderous ring of truck pirates. He defended Barry Black, founder of the Johnstown, Pa.-based International Keystone Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in 1998, after a host of white attorneys refused Black's case, and Black had to turn to the ACLU for help. Baugh also got Kemba Smith out of jail last year.

"David is one of the most charismatic and passionate lawyers I've ever encountered," says Rodney Smolla, who teaches law at the University of Richmond and is a constitutional-rights and civil-liberties attorney for the Virginia chapter of the ACLU. "He is a master in the courtroom and a brilliant tactician and strategist. He has a larger-than-life personality and confidence."

But behind the scenes, Smolla says, Baugh is not what some expect; he's down-to-earth, personable. "There's a contrast between his public and private personas," he says.

Even after that much experience in the public, the past year has thrust a tidal wave at Baugh, a wave that has been exhilarating and giant, but one that sometimes undoubtedly made him feel small.

He defended a suspected terrorist in a high-profile federal death case in New York, before Sept. 11. The year-long case made headlines everywhere. But Baugh kept mostly to himself. His time on the case, away from Richmond, was a "transition year," he says, in which he contemplated what to do when he returned. A judgeship or a professorship were options, he was sure. Then Sept. 11 happened.

The tragedy was a defining moment for Baugh. His brother's best friend was a pilot who died with the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania. The apartment where Baugh had lived just months before the attacks was blocks from the World Trade Center.

"I saw the hole," he says, describing the abyss at Ground Zero. It was still smoldering when he returned to New York for his convicted client's sentencing. Yet the combined effect of it all helped lift the haze of uncertainty that hovered over Baugh's future. A different kind of haze hovers still.

Months later Baugh tries to explain the impact the New York case had on his career. "You don't need a big case to have a big issue. My perspective of the law hasn't changed [over the years]. What has changed is the treatment I receive." He no longer feels invincible, he explains: "It's like Peter Pan gets a briefcase. They say no one's more conservative than a revolutionary is after a revolution. I worry about that."

Baugh came home to Richmond in July, convinced that any other job besides being a criminal trial lawyer would leave him hamstrung, unable to make a mark. He would have become just one more judge or one more professor in a conservative city. And for a guy like Baugh that's not where the challenges are.

Not long after he returned to Richmond, late in 2001, Baugh and his wife, Jocelyn, separated. Their marriage had lasted 30 years. "I practice law too much," he tells me. But his explanation seems incomplete.

Baugh's plans for the Alicia Keys concert tonight are deliberate. He is very aware that going to a pop concert with me could cast him in a different light, expose some smooth, sociable alter ego not often seen by the public. Earlier in the day he had walked from his offices to the Landmark Theater and bought tickets to see the sultry Keys — grand balcony; $37.50 apiece. At the time it seemed like a good idea asking me along. But now, facing a long night in cramped seats with little time to talk and with what could be an unruly crowd, Baugh appears to wonder whether he's made a mistake.

"Are we going backstage?" he asks, half-serious. He knows the answer is no. Still, there's a twinkle in Baugh's bold brown eyes and, for an instant, it appears that even the remotest chance of meeting Keys may be why he wears the suit. After all, he notes, she is the "flavor of the month."

There's time to spare before the show. Baugh puts the tickets in his pocket and motions for me to take a seat in his office. Naturally Baugh has something to say. He uses the time to expound on his theory of justice and why America should be on trial.

This is typical of Baugh. Who else could segue seamlessly from Alicia Keys to the war on terrorism? It's only a matter of time before he invokes the Constitution, reciting bits, finding himself again in its cadence. Baugh's colleagues have all witnessed such moments.

He rifles through papers piled high on his desk, then finds what he's looking for in a stack of books. It is a transcript from a 1996 "60 Minutes" interview in which then-Secretary of State Madeline Albright and reporter Leslie Stahl discuss the U.S. sanctions against Iraq and how much damage was exacted as a result. Baugh knows the news report almost by heart. He has used it, he explains, as part of a defense to show that terrorists aren't the only ones who use weapons of mass destruction.

Last year Baugh defended Rashed Daoud al-'Owhali, a Saudi dissident and French citizen who was convicted in June for his role in the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Kenya. More than 200 people died in that attack, which has been linked to Osama bin Laden. Al-'Owhali was convicted but was spared the death penalty. It was a triumph of sorts for Baugh.

Baugh's strategy meant explaining to the jury that al-'Owhali used "killing to stop killing." He argued that the bombings were in retribution for the Iraqis who were killed by Gulf War air strikes and the shortages of food and medicine caused by United Nations sanctions. He cautioned jurors that a death-penalty ruling would require each of them to decide whether "to kill someone."

The jury sentenced Al-'Owhali to spend the rest of his life in a federal prison somewhere in the United States. Because of Baugh's defense, al-'Owhali won't die for his crime.

The temperature outside the Landmark Theater is dropping fast while clusters of teen-agers hover around the doors. Baugh is among them all — boys and girls dressed mostly in black, dreaming of meeting the diva, for real — and the lawyer looks emblazoned in his camel-colored coat, decidedly distinguished.

Baugh expected the kids, their stinging excitement. But he didn't expect that they'd be so well-behaved, or that an adult would accompany many of them. Still, Baugh scans the crowd suspiciously, like a parent or policeman. The crowd at the door must be moving too slowly for Baugh. He waits and stares. He doesn't talk to me about work or anything else. It is a rare occasion when Baugh is speechless.

After a few minutes the overflow of concertgoers outside is ushered in. Baugh moves quickly around to the right, ignoring program pushers and rose peddlers, and leads me up the stairs, up all the stairs. Finally we take our seats a dozen or more rows back on the grand balcony. He doesn't seem to know that Alicia Keys may be a while. When he realizes this, he takes off his overcoat and places it smartly in the empty seat behind him.

Baugh looks anxious and awkward hunched in the tiny, worn seat. Yet he must be settling in. He can't stop peering out over the crowd, curiously, as if at any moment he could spy someone he knows. Baugh describes Alicia Keys' famous fedora to me and points them out on imitating fans whenever they pass by. It's Keys' signature, he adds. At last, the lights go down.

Just before Baugh gets almost comfortable, two ticket holders move into the empty spaces behind us. The coat is passed from one hand to another. When Baugh gets it, he puts it on his lap. It is piled so high on Baugh's legs that it nearly obstructs his view.

Baugh might have gone into the military and become a pilot like his father and brother. "I always thought I'd jump out of planes and eat snakes," he says amusedly. Instead he was kicked out of college, briefly, in the late '60s for protesting the war in Vietnam.

Baugh was born in Nashville in 1948. He was 6 years old when the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Brown v. Board of Education. But Baugh makes little mention of any direct experience he had with segregation growing up. His father, Howard, was a lieutenant colonel with the Air Force and a Tuskegee Airman. "He is my hero," Baugh says. Being a military brat meant moving around from base to base. As the new kid, Baugh must have spent an awful lot of a time talking.

Baugh attended Cole College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where he studied physics. He transferred to Virginia State University near Richmond when his family moved east. By his senior year Baugh planned to go to Yale Drama School. But in the middle of that year Baugh was expelled for protesting the Vietnam War. He fought back, and still remembers the name of the man who inspired him to become an attorney.

Arthur Samuels, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, took Baugh's case. Watching the trial, listening to the arguments, sitting in the courtroom set Baugh on fire. He eventually was allowed back in the college and graduated. Four years later Baugh earned his law degree from Texas Southern University. "After the first six weeks I did really well," Baugh says peremptorily. "It was so easy."

Before moving to Richmond with his wife and two daughters, Baugh worked as an assistant U.S. attorney in Beaumont, Texas. He got fired, he says, because he "asked a federal judge why black defendants got more time than white defendants."

In 1983 Baugh was admitted to the Virginia Bar. But instead of continuing as a prosecutor Baugh started his own practice as a criminal-defense lawyer. "I was a great prosecutor because I was always thinking like the defense," he insists.

At his office in Oregon Hill, just across the street from the high-pitched cacophony of kids playing at the William Byrd Community House, Baugh has a staff of three: his associate, Sara Davis, an office manager, and a paralegal.

"It's a very nontraditional atmosphere. It's never dull," says Davis, who has been Baugh's law partner for three years. In that time she's worked on four death-penalty cases with Baugh, including the one last summer in New York. Working with Baugh has allowed Davis to work on cases her contemporaries see rarely, if at all, she says. "There is nothing more comforting than having David in the chair next to you," she says. "You won't screw up because he won't let you screw up."

Baugh is comfortable here. For Baugh, work is all-important. It provides the fulcrum for daily routine. Work determines where he is headed — Washington, D.C.; New York; Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Charlottesville — and how long he is gone. But when Baugh has become immersed in it, his family life has sometimes suffered. Baugh doesn't like to talk about this, but it's clear the breakup with his wife is still fresh. At the Alicia Keys concert he mentions another pair of tickets. He bought them while he was in New York before he and his wife separated. They are for an upcoming Frankie Beverly performance in New Orleans. Beverly is one of Baugh's favorite jazz performers.

He reclines in the chair behind his desk and lectures that law and order are two competing forces. He holds up his index fingers, as if measuring a distance from one point to another, to illustrate. Law should be interchangeable with freedom, he insists, and should expand to protect more people. "There is this idea that constitutional protection doesn't apply to the guilty," he says. Baugh peppers his monologues with case examples, framing what he can into what he sees as an inclusive, liberal vision of how law and the Constitution, should work.

In March, Baugh and Davis begin jury selection for a new federal death-penalty case near Washington, D.C. They are defending a client accused of participating in a drug conspiracy that dates back to 1988. Thirty-one people were killed. Nearly a dozen will stand trial.

Baugh wins more trials than he loses, though he contends, "You don't fight to win — you fight because it's wrong not to."

Baugh has an inventory of maxims like that: "The only way to protect religion is to leave it the hell alone." "The responsibility of freedom is tolerating it in others." "Never confuse justice with just desserts." "We don't have a drug problem in this country we have a mental health problem." "Profiling for Muslims is like profiling for Republicans." "Morality has no place in the law."

Baugh's adages haven't changed too much over the years, and they are no less emphatic than they ever were. Depending on where you're standing, statements like these have inspired legions of admirers and an equal number of skeptics.

His critics claim Baugh overlooks what is inherently right or wrong and lacks the conscience to support it. Baugh would likely agree. Morality has no place in law, he says.

Baugh's assertions often seem to have the snap of entertainment. "My oath to God does not mention guilt," Baugh confesses one day when asked how he defends someone he knows is guilty, sometimes of extreme violence.

The phone rings. "Hello. David Baugh," he answers in a baritone staccato.

"Like, your kid is supposed to be in court," he says sarcastically to the woman who has called.

There's a pause while she offers some explanation.

"Oh, sweet galloping Jesus Christ. OK. I'll call the courts and take care of it," he promises.

Another pause.

"Don't sweat the small stuff," Baugh tells the woman. "Put it in the collection plate and say a prayer for my heathen ass." He hangs up the phone.

The call has interrupted Baugh's train of thought, and he scowls, trying to remember where he left off. Then someone walks in.

His oldest daughter, Miranda, is passing through Richmond on her way to Winston-Salem where she's in her second year of medical school at Wake Forest University. Baugh had been expecting her. He rises and meets her eye to eye. He tells her she looks great — she is indeed striking. The father and daughter embrace with the kind of really-missed-you hug that's held for long moments of time.

Check-ins from Baugh's daughters seem to be routine. Baugh hasn't always been as healthy as he is today. In 1998 Baugh weighed 325 pounds. He was diagnosed with a tumor on his spine. It was removed successfully. He could have been a cripple, he says. As of last year Baugh had shed 120 pounds. Although Baugh is a shadow of his former self, he has retained that pillowy, self-satisfied bulk that matches his Barry White sounding voice.

Miranda looks her father over and he must meet with her approval. Baugh pulls from his desk two historical tokens to show off, to keep her here a minute longer. The first is a pink button marked with a black fist. It is an authentic Black Panther Society pin. The second is an ID card issued to Baugh for entry into the federal courts building in New York. At the top the name "David Baugh" is typed out. Below his name reads: "United States v. Usama bin Laden." Baugh wonders aloud what the items would fetch on E-bay. The two squabble playfully about who's the smartest.

"Living in the Baugh household is a little like litigating," Miranda says. "Try changing the mind of someone who argues for a living. That's a challenge."

Onstage Alicia Keys and her piano press plaintively through a medley of songs about moving on, metamorphosis and motion. The themes don't appear to have been lost on David Baugh, or the drama either. After Keys soars through Donny Hathaway's "We'll All Be Free," Baugh — who has clapped first and longest after every song performed tonight — holds up his index finger, as the number one. If, at first, Baugh felt uncomfortable about the crowd, the seats, the silence, none of this is visible now.

"That kid's got talent," Baugh tells me. "Smooth as glass." Baugh says this slowly, again. "Smooth as glass."

After the concert Baugh and I race west along I-64 in his 2001 Mazda Miata, bound for Waffle House on West Broad Street. A Frankie Beverly CD keeps music around us.

At the Waffle House Baugh slides into what is clearly his regular booth, the corner one with the window. Everyone who works here says hello. He orders a cup of decaf, hash browns, wheat toast and an omelet with one slice of cheese. "Make it soft," he says.

"I admire artists and dancers for their sacrifice," Baugh blurts out. "Everybody needs to be artistic, I believe."

Last semester Baugh took a creative-writing class at J. Sargeant Reynolds. He used to come to this Waffle House after class, he says. He sees people here who look like they could be from anywhere in America, anywhere in the world. Sometimes one will remind him of a former client; sometimes one is. "People will come up to me and say 'Mr. Baugh, you saved my ass.' Now that's some heady shit."

Baugh wrote two short stories for his writing class, he says, tapping the ketchup bottle over his hash browns. The first is about a Jewish family in Poland during World War II that unknowingly takes a train to a concentration camp. The second story is about a sharpshooter for some military faction who stalks his targets for days before he kills them.

Baugh tells me the experience has inspired him anew. "Did I mention," he says, "I got an A in the class?"

Add a comment