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Peter Legler

After 40 years, Virginia Beach public defender retires

Peter Legler is retiring from his position of Virginia Beach chief public defender after nearly 40 years of representing the city’s poorest criminal defendants. He talked about his work at the offices of the public defender in Virginia Beach on Thursday, June 28, 2012.

Pete Legler was just a kid when he figured out what he wanted to do with his life: become a public defender.

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His inspiration: a TV courtroom drama in which the public defender always won.

More than a half-century later, Legler retired this week after nearly 40 years of representing the city’s poorest criminal defendants. Unlike the TV show, he didn’t always win, but he always put up one heck of a fight, judges, former colleagues and opponents said.

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Legler – a former Marine Corps judge advocate – started his career here with the city attorney’s office in 1971. He quickly made use of his time becoming “more or less an irritant” to various city boards and commissions, he recalled in an interview last week.

Soon afterward, when the General Assembly created a pilot public defender program here – one of four in Virginia – he applied for a part-time position. Instead, he was asked to lead the office, and in 1973 a “flabbergasted” Legler became the city’s first chief public defender.

He opened the office with three part-time attorneys, a secretary and an investigator. They defended about 400 cases the first year, Legler said.

Today, the office has grown and has 22 full-time and five part-time attorneys who handle nearly 10,000 cases a year. Their job is to represent people facing criminal charges that could result in jail sentences but who can’t afford to hire a lawyer.

It’s not always a fun, easy or popular job to defend people who are accused of stupid, cruel or brutal offenses. But it was Legler’s passion.

“It’s a calling,” he said. “We defend everyone’s freedom . because we believe that everyone is entitled to a competent and a fair defense.

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“The way I see it is that we are the voice of the people,” he added. “And we have to give words that perhaps are more eloquent than they could, to explain their plight and make others understand the circumstances under which the alleged crime took place.”

It was a passion he instilled in the attorneys he hired, many of whom went on to successful private practices. At least eight became judges, said David Johnson, executive director of the Virginia Indigent Defense Commission, which overseas the state’s public defender offices.

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“I learned a tremendous amount from Pete,” said private attorney Larry Slipow, who worked for two years as a public defender in the 1980s. “When I worked in that office, Pete always took the most difficult cases, and he met them head-on.”

In worn leather loafers, the 69-year-old Legler comes off a bit grandfatherly and gruff, with piercing blue eyes and an impish smile. He earned a reputation for his formidable wit and as an equally formidable force in defense of his clients.

“He was somebody you had to watch,” said Commonwealth’s Attorney Harvey Bryant, who prosecuted a handful of cases opposite Legler, “because he would push things as far as you could legally push them.”

Legler would ridicule the prosecutor. He’d tell jokes. He’d throw his arms around a defendant facing the death penalty and beg for his life, asking the jury to pray with him. He’d quote Shakespeare, once likening a man accused of gunning down four people to Macbeth, tempted into the crime by a wayward woman.

In one jury trial several years ago, he even belted out a rendition of Bette Midler’s “The Rose,” substituting “ruse” for “rose” in the lyrics to make a point about a detective lying to his client to force a confession.

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He said he thinks it was effective.

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“Humor works,” he said. “The sentence in that case was far less severe than I anticipated.”

He was unshakable, even when one of his clients sprang across a courtroom and assaulted a prosecutor, Bryant said.

Legler simply turned to the judge and, referring to a series of popular Timex watch advertisements, told him the prosecutor “takes a licking and keeps on ticking,” Bryant recalled, laughing.

Humor, Legler and his colleagues said, is how he lasted so long in an often taxing, sometimes thankless job.

A job that, before the state created a separate office to represent people accused of capital murder, sometimes meant finding a way to defend people accused of the city’s most horrendous crimes.

A job that sometimes meant convincing those defendants to fight their charges, even if their best hope was life in prison instead of the death penalty.

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Of those cases, two stand out to Legler – two cases he lost.

The first involved Albert Jay Clozza, who had confessed to raping, torturing and killing a 13-year-old girl in a trailer park in 1983. The other was that of Michael Clagett, who shot to death four people in a restaurant in 1994.

Juries convicted both, and the state executed Clozza in 1991 and Clagett in 2000.

Legler took those losses hard, said Hampton’s chief public defender, Tom Watkins, who helped Legler defend Clagett.

“It was an awful case, as far as the evidence we were up against,” Watkins said. “He worked so hard and he took the verdict so hard. It just shows the depth of his feelings for the clients.”

“I don’t like to look back on those two cases,” said Legler, a devout Catholic. “You’re always wondering if there’s something else you could have done.”

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He chooses instead to remember the victories, though public defenders define victory a little differently. Sometimes a conviction or a guilty plea is a win if the client receives a lesser sentence that hopefully won’t define the rest of the person’s life.

In one such case, Legler defended a young man charged with fatally shooting a woman who tried to break into his house. The jury convicted him – but of manslaughter instead of murder, and he spent six months in jail instead of years in prison.

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He returned years later to thank Legler.

“Those are the kind of cases I like to remember,” Legler said. “By and large, people appreciate what we’ve done and they’re grateful.”

Now Legler plans to spend his retirement with his family, traveling and making time to read something other than the law books that line the conference room where he prepared for some of his biggest cases.

He leaves behind a legacy of service, one that changed the criminal justice system here and resulted in support for creating public defender’s offices elsewhere in the state, said Johnson of the Indigent Defense Commission.

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“There are cases that you’re not going to win, but you make the best you can for your client,” Circuit Court Chief Judge Edward W. Hanson Jr. said.

“That’s what he’s done for almost 40 years. He’s left a lasting mark on that office.”

Kathy Adams, 757-222-5155, kathy.adams@pilotonline.com