The Real Challenge

Like Tolstoy, Reeves Mahoney knows that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way

Published in 2018 Virginia Super Lawyers — May 2018

Back in the days when emergency rooms could stitch up a woman who’d been beaten senseless and release her back into the hands of her abusive husband without reporting the incident to police, Reeves Mahoney, in 1986, introduced a legal concept untested in Virginia during a murder trial in Norfolk: The Battered-Spouse Syndrome.

“When I put the psychologist on, he got about one-fifth of the way into his testimony, and Judge McNamara stopped it and he asked counsel to come back in his chambers,” Mahoney says. “And I’ll never forget what he said. He said, ‘Reeves, what is this psychological bull?’”

Effecting a deep timbre to imitate the judge, Mahoney stretches out the word like a long pull of taffy: Buuuullll.

“And I said, ‘Judge, when I first read about it, I had the very same reaction. You have no idea what it took to get over my prejudices and be able to see that this is the real thing.’ And I was banging my hand right on his desk. ‘This. Is. The. Real. Thing.’” 

In the case in question, Roberta Wellbrock shot her husband after being sent down to the cellar to pick out the belt with which he would beat her—a regular occurrence in their household. Mahoney unearthed records of 14 emergency room visits at local hospitals in which Wellbrock had been treated for physical injuries. It was a textbook case of BSS.

“In the Battered-Spouse Syndrome,” Mahoney explains, “the battered spouse’s perception of a potential battering event is at variance with the perception of a layperson who has not been through that systematic abuse. This might be the time that he kills me, she thinks, therefore it justifies a response of lethal force because she is in fear for her life.”

The prosecution was willing to take first-degree murder off the table, offering second-degree instead. But Mahoney would settle for no less than manslaughter and the case went to trial. Which brings us back to Judge McNamara’s chambers.

“He agreed to hear the psychologist out of the presence of the jury,” Mahoney says. “In other words, take a proffer. And I painstakingly went through [BSS] because this was the first time that he heard it in his whole life and I had to convince him. I just was so grateful, because he allowed a modified version of the testimony.”

In his closing arguments, Mahoney implored the jury, “Don’t let Vincent Wellbrock reach out of the grave and choke Roberta Wellbrock one more time. I’m asking for an acquittal.” 

They deliberated for six hours and came back with a verdict of voluntary manslaughter and a fine of $500. 

“She literally paid $500 in court costs and went home.”

 

In his 37-year career, Mahoney has handled many types of cases: murder, corporate divestiture, personal injury, even admiralty. But it was in 1979 that Mahoney found his true calling when he worked a divorce case. The complex disentangling of assets showed him that family law had diverse and intriguing possibilities. 

“Every divorce is fact-specific,” he says. “You are dealing with different people, different dynamics, different facts, different socioeconomic statuses. It’s just incredible the variety you have. You have to be very proficient in many different theaters of knowledge, and you have the added layer of ushering someone through one of the most difficult moments of their lives. Therein lies the real challenge.”

So many of the decisions in family law boil down to personal value judgments, he notes. What’s right for one client might be wrong for another.

“Recently, I had an alpha woman in here who is completely devoted to her career,” says Mahoney. “She basically told me, ‘I don’t think that I can see my children but maybe one day a month.’ She’s climbing a corporate ladder and has further to go to end up the CEO. A week and a half later, a woman [in a custody dispute] comes in crying and says, ‘I can’t imagine not seeing my children every day of my life.’ Talk about two different universes. Now am I going to tell that ambitious woman climbing the corporate ladder, ‘Oh, you need to see your children more’? No. She gets to make that value judgment.”

“Divorce is a tough game,” says Lowell Stanley, founder of Lowell A. Stanley. “Even if you are a great lawyer and you’re doing well, nobody is happy. Divorces are painful. But Reeves, not only is he a great trial lawyer and a great advocate, but he cares as a human being about his clients, giving them the tender loving care that is appropriate.”

Before going into politics, former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell worked alongside Mahoney for 14 years. In one custody battle where they represented the mother, McDonnell recalls the special care Reeves took not to estrange the father. 

“Reeves was very honest about the long-term best interests of the young child spending time with the father,” he says. “Not being afraid to be honest with the court about things that are in the best overall interests of the family while still advocating strenuously for his client’s position is a real skill. Reeves is one of those people who can do that because he’s able to see the big picture.”

Adds Stanley, “I have seen Reeves in very sensitive situations where his client was being attacked by people on the other side who were really determined to do a lot of damage, and I’ve seen Reeves disarm his opponents with a joke or empathy that changed the whole tenor of the process to the great advantage of his client. I’ve seen him disarm opponents when they weren’t even aware they were being disarmed.”

Beyond charm, empathy and legal knowledge, Mahoney relies heavily on subject matter experts. In Wellbrock, he not only persuaded a local mental health expert to testify, but he had that expert consult with Lenore Walker, the psychologist who identified BSS in her book, The Battered Woman

Forensic psychologist Dr. Leigh D. Hagan recalls the first time Mahoney interviewed him for use as an expert witness. “He brought another expert with him to make sure that he had a translator,” says Hagan, “in case anybody started speaking ‘psychologist’ or something. I was impressed that he would go to those lengths for his client to thoroughly kick the tires of an expert before committing to hire him. And he listened. He didn’t come to tell me stuff, he listened. He put the time, the efforts, the energy, the thoughtfulness into it, all with an element of humility that didn’t suck all the oxygen out of the room.”

In a custody case involving a 13-year-old boy with anorexia nervosa whose weight had dropped from 109 pounds to 76, Mahoney zeroed in on the father’s callous disregard for the disease. With the assistance of a forensic psychologist, he demonstrated a causal link between the boy’s psychopathology and the father’s emotional abuse. 

“Judges are all fine jurists,” says Mahoney, “but they don’t necessarily know everything. They are human, too. Getting the court to recognize emotional abuse and insensitivity to the psychopathology underlying a disease like anorexia nervosa, you’ve got to educate the judge. To do that, you have to first get yourself educated.”

Striking early is another Mahoney trademark. In meetings with clients, he ascertains what is the most important thing they want to walk away with, then makes that the centerpiece in negotiations. On the Eastern shore, where land is tied in with generational history, the one thing is often the family farm. In one instance, the one thing was one of George Washington’s hunting rifles. 

Mahoney describes how one case hinged on an engagement ring that both parties desired. The ring had been passed down to the husband from his mother, but the wife had cared for the mother in her dying days as if she were her own blood. 

“From the very start of that case, the ring was an issue,” Mahoney says. “My client was going to get the ring and we would settle or we were going to trial. It’s not like something you bring up just as you’re about to settle and then you say, ‘Oh we want the ring.’ … Every time we talked, it was, ‘The ring, the ring, the ring.’ I wanted them so sick and tired of hearing about the ring that they just wanted to throw it at me.”

He strikes early in other ways, too.

Like the time 23-year-old Reeves stopped a robbery in progress.

He was walking on East Main Street in Richmond in 1975 when he heard a woman screaming “Stop him!” and saw a young man with a Virginia Trust Co. bag. Mahoney ran after him, caught him and held him until police arrived. He didn’t know the man was armed, and he didn’t know who was watching from his office window: Thomas C. Boushall, the bank’s board chairman. “He saw me chase the robber down and he inquired about my identity,” Mahoney says.

When Boushall learned Mahoney’s name, he was even more curious. “He wanted to know whether I was related to the advertising giant Rosser Reeves, who Don Draper on Mad Men was modeled after,” Mahoney says. “Rosser Reeves was my uncle.” Before he knew it, Boushall invited Mahoney to lunch.

Mahoney, who was working as a carrier for a law firm, told Boushall he had applied to T.C. Williams School of Law. Boushall said he’d give the dean a call. 

He got the good news shortly thereafter. “That recommendation is what got me into law school,” Mahoney says.

Forty-plus years later, would Mahoney react the same? “If Bruce Willis can still star in Die Hard movies, I can still foil robberies,” he says.

 

About 95 percent of the time, Mahoney reaches settlement, cases closing with a signature in a quiet conference room. The other 5 percent? Mahoney likens the thrill of litigation to drug addiction. “I’ve never done heroin, cocaine or LSD,” he says, “but what I’ve experienced in the courtroom makes those chemicals pale. When the door closes and the judge comes out and sits down, my pituitary gland starts spitting out endorphins that would make designer drugs look like aspirin.”

Now in his 60s, Mahoney stays fit by running five miles every morning. Dressed in a peak-lapelled, blue-silk jacket with a pocket square, he resembles a model out of an Armani catalogue. He often pontificates on subjects ranging from maxims of the ancient Greek Oracle of Delphi (Know thyself, love thyself, to thine own self be true) to the evolution of shopping malls in America. 

While Mahoney credits his father—a WWII surgeon awarded the prestigious Croix de Guerre for heroic deeds at the Battle of the Bulge—with instilling in him a tireless work ethic, it’s his mother he points to for making him curious and culturally aware. Mary Watkins Reeves wrote daytime serials for radio during the 1930s and ’40s (she wrote for the popular The Romance of Helen Trent) and then soap operas for CBS in the ’50s. She had her son tutored in Latin and ancient Greek. She took him on regular trips from their home in Long Island to Manhattan’s museums, galleries and bookstores. 

His mother told him that if he gained mastery over his native tongue and learned how to communicate, he could accomplish anything. Her boxed writings fill one corner of his office; inspired, Mahoney has started writing poetry (see sidebar on page 10).

“Whenever I asked her what a word was,” Mahoney says, “she would say, ‘Look it up and you’ll never forget.’ The only dictionary that we had was the Oxford English Dictionary, which had those wafer-thin, onion-skin pages. I had to wash my hands before I could put them on the sacred OED. She would say, ‘That word is a derivation of what Latin word? Where did that come from in Greek?’ And sometimes you would take words all the way back to their Phoenician roots. Every word became a journey.”

“Reeves is one of those Renaissance people that is well-read and thinks deeply,” says McDonnell. “He’s always looking for a way to make the practice of law better and desire a comprehensive strategy to serve his clients better.”

Mahoney is erudite in a way that doesn’t condescend. It’s a natural part of his conversation. At one moment, he’s quoting the poet Shelley; the next, he’s using fast food analogies to make a point about family law.

“Divorce is unpleasant,” he says. “Contested divorce is an ugly and nasty gauntlet, which is emotionally wrenching and very expensive. A husband and wife going into a divorce are the co-possessors of the marital estate, but the primary goal of divorce is to financially disentangle the parties. Therefore by definition, when you emerge from this divorce, you are only going to have half the Big Mac. And who wants half a Big Mac? Nobody.”

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