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The Public Domain

Former DAs and PDs on what they loved and hated about the job

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Published in 2023 Virginia Super Lawyers magazine

By Steve Knopper on April 26, 2023

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When Gretchen Taylor Pousson was 25, she made her first visit to jail—as an assistant public defender in Roanoke. At first, her clients did not receive her well: “Aw, man, they gave me a baby lawyer?” she remembers one saying. But she quickly figured out ways to gain their trust. “I learned to listen to them and talk to them in a way they understood, without talking down to them,” she says, adding, “It probably made me have a potty mouth early on.”

The five Virginia and West Virginia attorneys who spoke to us about their backgrounds as public defenders and prosecutors all had to adjust to the job and deal with punishing workloads. What wearied Chris Anderson, though, was less the workload than seeing so many defendants who were “young and Black like me.”

Here are their stories.

The Start

Gretchen Taylor Pousson, Cook Craig & Francuzenko, Fairfax; Criminal Defense; Newport News assistant commonwealth’s attorney(1998-2002), Roanoke assistant public defender (1995-1997) and assistant federal public defender (2002-2008): I did my third year of practice at the Norfolk Commonwealth Attorney’s Office and I was hooked. I was like, “I have to be a prosecutor. This is the coolest job. I get to be in court every day, and the cases are interesting.” Frankly, I’ve never cared about other people’s money. Civil law was just not where my heart was at.

Chris Anderson, Bricker Anderson & Johnson, Richmond; Personal Injury – General: Plaintiff; Richmond assistant public defender (1993-1996) and Petersburg special prosecutor (1997-1999): I went to North Carolina Central University School of Law, and there was a strong trial-advocacy class, so I had tried a number of cases in general district court in the city of Durham. I really liked trying cases. Because North Carolina Central is an HBCU, there were very few people or law firms or entities that came recruiting. I knew my best bet would be either to prosecute or be a public defender.

Manuel E. Leiva, The Leiva Law Firm, Fairfax; Criminal Defense; Fairfax County assistant public defender (1998-2000): I was in my last semester in law school and didn’t want to commute every day to D.C., so I took an externship in the Public Defender’s Office in Fairfax for six credits. Because I was fully bilingual, I quickly got snapped up by some of the senior public defenders to help them with some of their more serious cases. When I got my third-year certificate, I was arguing motions and participating in trials. That’s when I got the bug and realized I really wanted to do trial work.

Harry F. Bell Jr., Stewart Bell, Charleston; Class Action/Mass Torts; Kanawha County assistant prosecutor (1980-1982): In my first summer in law school, I clerked at the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. We had, at the time, a really bright, impressive, rising-star prosecuting attorney here in Kanawha County. I had an opportunity to go in that office for a summer job, and said, “This is what I want to do.”

Corinne J. Magee, The Magee Law Firm, McLean; Criminal Defense; Fairfax County assistant commonwealth’s attorney (1981-1987): I wanted to litigate. I had worked for the Rhode Island Supreme Court and got the urge to be in the courtroom. A friend said, “If you want to litigate, go to work for Bob Horan”—then commonwealth’s attorney in Fairfax. “He’s the best, and you’ll get into court every day.

The Workload

Magee: I was in court every day. I’m doing a jury trial Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday; I’m doing misdemeanor appeals Thursday; and I’m in traffic court Friday.

Leiva: I often found myself talking to my classmates at big firms who hadn’t even set foot in the courtroom or conducted a deposition. They would live vicariously through me: “Hey, what are you up to?” “I’m arguing up to four suppression motions this week. Got a jury trial next week.” They really throw you in there.

Anderson: The image you see on TV and in movies—about the lawyer from the public defender’s office who’s overworked and shows up to court with 10 or 15 files and they’re somewhat unprepared—is simply wrong. However, there were a number of cases, and it required a lot of preparation and a lot of work. We were expected to see people we were representing within 24 or 48 hours. Everybody in the office was very serious about making sure they did that.

Taylor Pousson: On a given general district court docket, I’d have 50 cases. I found police officers sometimes don’t want to hear what you have to say. “Why did you search that person?” They’d give me a reason I didn’t think was valid. I’d say, “Well, yeah, I think we got a problem.” “What do you mean?” “I think it’s an illegal search.” “OK, what are you going to do?” “Going to drop the case.” They didn’t like that too much.

Bell: Worked on probably well over 100. Tried about 30 cases. It was nothing to come in and [have someone] say, “Here’s a file, go try the case.” That’s what they paid me to do. It’s not like a civil case. No discovery. You talk to police officers, victims and witnesses and, bingo, you’re pretty much ready to go.

Leiva: Two years at the public defender’s office is probably equivalent to five years in private practice.

“Sometimes justice means you let someone go or you give them a chance for redemption.”

Gretchen Taylor Pousson

The Cases

Magee: I had a young woman who was raped by a neighbor, and she belonged to a church that strongly believed it wasn’t rape unless you screamed and yelled and fought. Her kids were in the next room. She didn’t scream or yell and fight because she was afraid the children would be awakened and be injured. The guy gets out on bond and comes back a week later and says, “If I’m going to go to prison, I’m going to do it right this time”—and rapes her again. She had absolutely no support from any of her community when she went forward to prosecute these charges. I moved to revoke bond and the judge refused. I went back to my office and bawled, and said, “OK, let’s go get her ready for another preliminary hearing.” I got two convictions.

Bell: The cases I got assigned ran the gamut from petty crimes to serious felonies, murder. We did a fair number of drug cases. That was the era you went from marijuana to cocaine. When I left that office after about two years, crystal meth was just starting to come into the community, and it brought with it more violence. And of course, you had the crimes of passion, which were wild and fascinating cases.

Leiva: I remember once representing one member of the Pagan motorcycle gang. They’re known for being very xenophobic and racist. I remember walking in and looking at him, and he was covered in Nazi tattoos. Clearly, he could tell I was Latino. He says to me, “Outside in the real world, you and I wouldn’t talk, but in here, you’re my lawyer, so don’t worry about it.” He was charged with multiple felonies and in the end, he was convicted of just a misdemeanor. And I won him over.

Anderson: I had a gentleman in his mid- to late-60s. He claimed to have been an enforcer for one of the crime families in Philadelphia. He had done some pretty rough things, then fell into alcoholism and got involved in drugs. But he was really interesting and, quite frankly, to me a nice guy. He had been charged with murder, because somebody had broken into what he called his house, and they were looking for his stash of heroin. He had a sword, and he killed the guy. We were able to negotiate a resolution he was OK with: not a trial and not guilty. He could have been in jail for 15 or 20 years. He ended up getting about a year and a half, but then he found out he had cancer, got sick and died in prison.

Bell: We had an exotic dancer—a stripper at one of the clubs—and she had been brutally murdered in a downtown, fleabag-type motel. There was a street character in that era—”Aqualung” was his nickname. He was always rummaging in dumpsters and alleys, and he found bloodied clothes with sequins from her outfit. That helped break the case. He approached the police and shared what he found, and eventually we caught the killer.

Taylor Pousson: I had my first murder case within six months of passing the Bar and starting that job. The defendant was a woman who was abused by her husband. He was emotionally and physically abusive to her, day in and day out. She finally had enough. She stabbed him. She said he fell on the knife—straight through his chest. I knew I had a sympathetic defendant, because she really was the victim in most of their life. So I played it up with the prosecutor. I told him I was going to fill the courtroom with advocates against domestic violence. He ended up giving her a voluntary manslaughter [charge]. I think she got 10 years. It was the right result.

Magee: In six years, I was only worried twice. Once, a defendant tried to follow me home and I pulled into a local fire station and called an officer, who took me home. [The defendant] broke into his girlfriend’s house a couple of months later and ended up getting shot and killed by her new boyfriend. Another time, I almost got lynched in the hall after a jury verdict on a child sexual-abuse case involving a 9-year-old boy. There were two wonderful police officers who happened to be sitting outside a courtroom down the hall who literally jumped up and used crowd-control tactics to bar the way so I could make my escape down the elevator.

The Departure

Bell: Most of the work was drug cases, and you’d have the robberies, break-ins, burglaries. It was great experience, but after a while I could see, as a lawyer, you could get stuck in that. The salary was relatively comfortable at the time, I had a good track record, I could have gone and been a career prosecutor. But I wanted more challenging cases.

Magee: After six years, I got to a point where I really wanted to be going into court feeling like I had a total handle on the case. As a [private] defense attorney, I may only have my client’s version, which may or may not have anything to do with reality, but at least I have a theory walking into the courtroom.

Taylor Pousson: In 2008, I had to relocate for personal reasons. My husband was a police officer. He was a bicycle cop on July 4th, on the Virginia Beach oceanfront, and he got run over and was pretty severely injured, and basically couldn’t be a cop again. He said, “I need to move back home,” where both of our parents lived. I was able to start my own practice and operate it at a profit immediately. I couldn’t believe how easy it was, not knowing anyone up here, not having any client base or knowing any of the lawyers or judges.

Anderson: This family was driving from Baltimore to Greensboro, and the dad fell asleep and his stepdaughter died in the accident. He was charged with negligent homicide. The lawyer that had been assigned the case had only tried one jury trial before, and I was asked to second-chair to assist. I never felt comfortable with prosecuting this guy. He had fallen asleep because he had worked an extra shift—and my suspicion was that’s what he did for his family: He worked as hard as he could, he was tired after having worked. It wasn’t like he went out to a bar and got drunk and put his family in a car and drove through Petersburg and fell asleep. It was like 2 in the morning. I don’t think he went to jail, or if he did, I don’t think it was for long. That was fine by me. That was like the straw that broke the camel’s back. At the end of the day, I got tired of prosecuting people who looked like me.

The Lessons

Bell: Never be afraid of trying a case. When you’re on the plaintiff’s side, you don’t want to be in a position where you have to cave in because you need the money or your client’s so desperate.
Taylor Pousson: The fact I was a public defender first helped make me a better prosecutor. People who’ve never done that don’t realize how similar the jobs are. It is the same cases, the same issues—just, as a defense attorney, you’re focused on what the defendant wants, or what’s in his best interests, whereas a prosecutor is focused on what’s in society’s best interests. A prosecutor is supposed to be concerned about justice. Sometimes justice means you let someone go or you give them a chance for redemption.

Leiva: Where I practice, the public defenders tend to be young. You really need that energy. I’m 51. When I was a public defender, I was 26 or 27. It’s a young person’s game. We tended to get the gruesome, violent crimes that tend to shock the conscience of the community, and you’re the only person there to defend your client with, at times, minimal resources. It taught you to be very creative with what very little you were given.

Magee: I got very good at closing the door at the end of the day when I went home. I don’t read murder mysteries. I don’t watch cop shows on TV. I’ve never watched an episode of CSI anywhere. I watch a lot of PBS and HGTV. I read a lot of historical fiction and fantasy novels. I’m very involved in my local church choir.

Leiva: Public defenders definitely need to be compensated more. At minimum, it should be on par with prosecutors.

Anderson: Recognizing the need to be prepared. Between the public defender’s office and what I learned in law school, as far as trial advocacy, made me confident I could try a case against anybody. I wasn’t in awe of anybody. I don’t know if that would have been the case if I had not been in the public defender’s or prosecutor’s office. 

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