Local defense attorney David Baugh has a gold hoop in his left ear and a rubber chicken in his briefcase, but only one has anything to do with defending the defenseless. At 60, Baugh is taking over the office of Central Virginia's capital defender, where he will represent people who are facing the death penalty but can't afford a lawyer.
That's where the rubber chicken comes in.
Legally speaking, there's possession and then there's constructed possession. Constructed possession is when the cops find crack under the defendant's couch and says the defendant "possessed" it. To illustrate this point, Baugh likes to cozy up to a court deputy and get him to hide the rubber chicken under the witness stand. Envelopes, soda straws and pink bunny ears work, too.
Then, when the officer testifies that the defendant possessed the drugs under the couch, Baugh asks the officer if he possesses the rubber chicken roosting under his seat. It's always good for a laugh -- and it pounds home Baugh's point.
"The citizens of Virginia can be sure under his leadership that capital defense will be the most vigorous and colorful defense possible," says Esther J. Windmueller, a prominent defense lawyer in Richmond.
Baugh has served as court-appointed counsel to Mohamed Rashed Daoud Al-'Owhali. Al-'Owhali was a member of al-Qaida and helped bomb the U.S. Embassy in Kenya, killing 213 people. He was up for the death penalty, but Baugh secured a life sentence instead.
Then there was the time Baugh, who is African-American, defended an imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Barry Elton Black had burned a cross at a rally in 1998 and Baugh defended his First Amendment right to do so all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. Baugh won.
"Defending somebody that everybody else hates," he says, "that's a noble calling. I mean who's the real hero the guy who leads the mob or the one who stands up for who they're all after? That's some Gary Cooper shit."
Baugh, with his flair for the dramatic, always seems to make his point and win over unlikely converts. Even King Salim Khalfani, executive director of the Virginia NAACP, was willing to forgive him for the KKK thing. "That sucked," Khalfani says, "but he loves the Constitution."
The high-profile victories may win over other attorneys, but it doesn't necessarily make the public love you, says David Hicks, former Richmond commonwealth's attorney. "I will say this about David. You make your choices and there's a consequence that comes with it," Hicks says. "Representing World Trade Center bombers and Klansmen has its cost." For example, Baugh sat on the Richmond School Board from 1998 to 2000, but a massive flier campaign made an issue of the KKK case and he couldn't win re-election.
But Baugh's place has always been in the courtroom. At trial on Valentine's Day at the John Marshall Courthouse downtown, he was on a first-name basis with most people in the building. One court deputy had a picture of Baugh and Baugh's father, who flew in World War II with the Tuskegee airmen.
"He's a legend," gushes Ann Baskervill, a young lawyer from the Commonwealth Attorney's Office whom Baugh proceeds to harangue over procedural issues until the judge finally grants a continuance. When Baskervill asks before the trial starts whom Baugh's witnesses will be, he draws up a snotty Boston elocution and pronounces, "God, the Constitution, the American way of life and my client."
The halo, however, remains. "I think he's a wonderful person and a wonderful attorney," Baskervill says. "I've learned so much from him."
He's famous for his exploits, too. In 1991 he was defending a case against Fightin' Joe Morrissey, renowned for his own courtroom theatrics and fisticuffs and now a member of the House of Delegates.
Court transcripts document this exchange:
"Mr. Morrissey approaches Mr. Baugh, but the court reporter is unable to hear what is said. Mr. Baugh replies, 'don't you dare touch my face again.' Mr. Morrissey denied touching Mr. Baugh's face
thereupon Mr. Baugh begins pushing Mr. Morrissey over to the outside glass window and states I don't have to take this from a little punk faggot. Whereupon a couple of blows were passed."
It's one of six times Baugh has gone to jail for contempt of court.
Then there are the countless drug addicts, killers and wrong-place-wrong-timers he often represents for free or at the low court-appointed rate. In 2006 he won the Virginia State Bar's Lewis F. Powell Jr. Pro Bono Award.
Now Baugh says he is ready for a change. "I'm 60. I have no wife, no pets, no plants," he says contentedly.
He had considered moving to Holland and working for the International Criminal Court the body that tries genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. He says he'd like to see older people giving back more, joining the Peace Corps or getting certified as EMTs. Then this came up.
"You can be a rat and a public defender and God's going to give you a good seat up front near the floor show with Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King," he says. Besides, he's against the death penalty.
"I am opposed to the government having the power to kill people," he says. "Something that important shouldn't be entrusted to the governments. These are the same people who run the post office."
Baugh insists that working as the capital defender will be no different from his career thus far. Except, from now on, if he botches a case, his clients will die.
That's not new, he insists. If a 50-year-old client faces charges that carry a 40-year sentence, he still might die in jail. And, well, his purpose doesn't change. Criminal defense work isn't just about protecting clients, but about preserving principals, he says.
"If you can lower the standard to convict a bad guy, you can lower it to convict an innocent person," Baugh says. "If they can knock down the bricks to get to him, they can get to me. So I've got to keep the bricks up." SClick here for more News and Features