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Notes on How to Beat Claire Cardwell

But they won't work any better for you than they did for the feds

Published in 2016 Virginia Super Lawyers magazine

By Bill Glose on April 7, 2016


The church’s steeple rose into a clear blue sky above Jackson Ward, one of Richmond’s poorest black neighborhoods. It was in the mid-’90s, a Christmas service was about to begin, and something remarkable struck Claire Cardwell from her back-row seat: the congregants settling into the pews were mostly women. So many of Jackson Ward’s men were either already buried or locked away.

Cardwell, an athletic blonde with a layered pageboy and a heart-shaped face, received a flyer at her office about the church service, so she stopped in. At the time, she was Richmond’s chief deputy commonwealth’s attorney, and the city’s murder rate was more than a hundred per year. As the women filed by to attend the service, Cardwell was surprised by how many she recognized: mothers, sisters and daughters who had been at her trials, either speaking from the stand or following her with pleading eyes from the gallery. 

“So many murders in Richmond were just so senseless,” says Cardwell, now a 57-year-old partner at Stone Cardwell & Dinkin. “Young men who were killed for their Avirex jackets or because somebody dissed somebody else. I used to say that gun violence had replaced the fistfight. Nobody just has it out on the street anymore in fistfights; everybody has a gun.” 

Seeing so many victims’ families in one place, the weight of all that violence fell upon Cardwell and something rare happened: She lost control of her emotions. Retreating to the foyer, she stood there, crying and hugging herself. This shaken woman was a stark contrast to her “normal” self—the poised and stoic professional who regularly attended autopsies and studied violent crime scene photos with the dispassion of someone scanning a newspaper. 


In 1974, when Cardwell was a sophomore at Granby High in Norfolk, she brought her boyfriend home to meet her parents. They were less than pleased. It didn’t matter that her new beau made good grades, didn’t drink and didn’t do drugs. What mattered was that he was black. They urged her to break things off. This was, after all, only seven years after the U.S. Supreme Court had decided Loving v. Virginia

Cardwell, who grew up with a passion for argument, fought back. 

“You’d be much happier for me to be dating a white guy who was smoking weed all the time?” she’d asked. She failed to win the argument with her father, who died about a week later while doing yard work. But her mother changed. She shed her prejudices. For the young Cardwell, watching her mother’s transformation helped cement a cornerstone belief for her, one that allows her to make sense of her work and her life: There are two sides to everyone. 

“I learned as a young person that when you love someone, it doesn’t mean they have to think exactly as you do,” says Cardwell. “And just because they think differently from you doesn’t mean that they have a bad motive. My mom was afraid of how I might be rejected or treated by people, because [interracial couples] weren’t that common or popular back then. It took some time, but she came around. My first husband was African-American, and he ended up being her all-time favorite son-in-law.” 

In her second year at the University of Richmond School of Law, Cardwell accepted an internship at the Richmond Commonwealth Attorney’s Office. While this internship normally groomed students to step into a prosecutorial role after graduation, the reverse happened to Cardwell. 

Allowed to choose cases to try under the supervision of a prosecutor, she aimed high, choosing to go up against the toughest defense lawyers so she could gain the most experience. David Baugh was one such giant, an aggressive defender who eviscerated opponents. Cardwell never shied. She went up against him every chance she got. When her internship was over, Baugh offered her a job. 

“I worked for him for free until I took the Bar exam,” says Cardwell, “and then I worked for nearly nothing for a while. But it was worth it for me just to gain the experience and get that kind of exposure. David was a great, great mentor. He taught me to be fearless. My style is a little bit different than his. You have a paramount duty to represent your client zealously, but I am a great believer in the value of diplomacy.” 

Richmond Deputy Commonwealth Attorney Learned Barry agrees. “Out of the courtroom she’s probably one of the nicest people you ever want to meet,” he says. “In the courtroom she’s mean as a snake.”

In 1994, Barry convinced Cardwell to make the jump to prosecutor. She joined him in the Richmond office and immediately dug into the two-foot high stack of murder cases on her desk. For the next eight years, putting violent criminals behind bars consumed her life. 

“If you limit yourself to one side of the tennis court, your game’s not going to be at its best,” she says. “If you want to be a good litigator, you should play both sides of the court. Having been a defense attorney made me a better prosecutor; and now, I’m a better defense attorney for having been a prosecutor.”

“The beauty of having her on staff is that she knew where the defense was going before the defense knew where they were going,” Barry says. “A lot of prosecutors will look at a case and say, ‘This is great.’ But Claire would look at her case and say, ‘Here are our weaknesses. Here is where we’re going to have problems. Here is where I would have attacked if I were defense counsel.’” 

Cardwell’s impressive conviction record and reputation as a litigator who related well to juries spread throughout Virginia and all the way to The New York Times’ best sellers list. In the late ’90s, research staff for Richmond author Patricia Cornwell reached out to Cardwell. Cornwell’s hit heroine Dr. Kay Scarpetta—a former Richmond medical examiner-turned-head of the fictional National Forensic Academy—often found herself in Richmond courts. 

“[Cornwell] wanted to be as accurate as possible, so that when people like me read it, I would be like, ‘OK, that’s the way it really happens,’” says Cardwell. “So I talked to her research staff about the grand jury system, how it works, how indictments happen. It was fun answering the questions, and I appreciated that she wanted to make it as authentic as possible. If only more authors would do that.”


Cardwell sits in her office in the former Cotton Exchange Building in trendy Shockoe Slip. The view from her window is of cobbled streets and boutique stores. While she has served as a substitute judge in Henrico, she does not foresee leaving her partners. Back when Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Virginia Donald Lemons was a circuit judge, he inquired about her interest in a judgeship and she replied, “I don’t think I’m finished having sex; I don’t want to be a voyeur.” 

Cardwell’s charm and wit are disarming. At times, you might forget how competitive she is; then she reminds you. 

She gestures to the framed photos of her five children. “I’m not fun playing board games,” she says. “Even when I play my kids, I don’t let them win.”

Deirdre Enright, director of investigation for the University of Virginia School of Law’s Innocence Project Clinic, can attest to that. Having worked with several clients Cardwell prosecuted, Enright was thrilled in 2004 when she heard Cardwell was on the defense side again and would be joining her team on the Darrell Rice case. Rice had been charged in federal court with the murder of two women in Shenandoah National Park in 2002. 

“For most lawyers, if they can’t think up front of a way to use a piece of information, they don’t want to pursue it or find out if it exists,” says Enright. “And Claire has the absolute opposite approach. She would always say, ‘Just give me anything you can find. I’ll find a way to get it into evidence.’ And she almost always did.” 

“Claire is brilliant, one of the best cross-examiners I’ve ever seen,” adds Gerald T. Zerkin, who was also a member of the Rice defense team and at that time senior litigator at the Office of the Federal Public Defender. “In a pretrial hearing, to test the credibility of a witness that the government wanted to put on, she just took the witness apart.”

The case was dismissed, but the feds weren’t finished. They kicked the matter down to the state courts and passed along notes advising their state counterparts how to withstand a Claire Cardwell cross-examination. The notes were inadvertently passed along to the defense. 

“They were all about how you can’t react to her relentlessness,” says Enright, “or let yourself get emotional, because it’s all an act and that’s what she’s trying to get you to do. It’s funny because in that case, where we thought the [second] prosecution was just not proper, her venom was real. She wasn’t faking her contempt.”

Perhaps Cardwell’s most notorious case occurred in 2007 when she, along with the Federal Public Defender’s office, represented Ahmed Salad, a Somali national charged with piracy and quadruple murder. 

“There was a horrible, horrible killing of four innocent U.S. citizens who were just beautiful people,” Cardwell says. “What happened was a tragedy, as was my client’s life. The reason he had turned to piracy, as so many of those young men do, was strictly financial and a matter of survival. His family would go weeks at a time and all they would have was a cup of milk to pass around for dinner. He had to stay, as a 9-year-old child, outside of the family’s hut in the bush and protect the livestock from hyenas with [sticks], and he very well could have been attacked by the hyenas. It reminded me how easy we have it in this country. I will never let the water run longer than it needs to run because this man and his family treated water like it’s gold.”

During the trial, one woman read a letter that her murdered sister had written while being held hostage on the boat. In the letter, she said goodbye and that she had had a good life. While she read, even the judge was crying. At that point, Cardwell worried she had failed and that Salad would be put to death. But the jury couldn’t reach a unanimous verdict; he received life imprisonment instead.

“People always ask me, ‘How can you defend a person who did something like that?’” Cardwell says. “And I’m thinking, ‘How can I not?’” 

She shares more about her interactions with Salad, how he kissed the hands of his lawyers every time they came to speak with him, how sweet and docile he seemed, and how the prison jumpsuit swallowed his emaciated form. She jabs the air for emphasis with each point and then lowers her hands as she arrives at the one that means the most to her.

“People who get in trouble aren’t always bad people. There’s something redeemable in everyone.”



Claire Cardwell’s Least-Favorite Legal Fiction Tropes

We’re sure you’ve done it before—rolled your eyes at lawyer fiction. Lucky for you, Claire Cardwell, who has aided Patricia Cornwell’s research staff to make the author’s legal prose legit, is on the case. Here are the top five mistakes she hopes scribes will fix:

 The Vampy Woman Lawyer…  “All the female lawyers don’t wear tight clothes!” says Cardwell. “That’s the first thing they get wrong.”

…and her sidekick Weepy Wendy.  “The second thing they get wrong,” says Cardwell, “is that we [female lawyers] all don’t become so emotionally involved in our cases that we lose our good judgment.”

The villain.  In fiction, crimes are always committed with sinister intent by immoral malefactors. “Villains may make for good drama,” Cardwell says, “but not every person who gets charged with a crime is a bad person.”

You don’t have the right to remain uninformed.  Since the days of Dragnet, everyone believes the first words out of an officer’s mouth are, “You have the right to remain silent.” Says Cardwell, “The Miranda warning is only read to suspects upon interrogation. It has nothing to do with their arrest.”

The token crooked Esq.  “Generally, prosecutors and defense attorneys in the Richmond area trust each other,” she says. “There is a circle of lawyers who have to interact all the time, so keeping your word and playing fair is important. And while you can never compromise your duty to your client, you shouldn’t make unnecessary enemies because you could compromise your ability to help the next client.”

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