Monday, March 21, 2005

Walking With Baugh

by F. T. Rea

Like successful lawyers can sometimes be, David P. Baugh is not afraid to be garrulous, even galling, when he thinks something important is at stake. In a courtroom he’s a tough customer, yet, Baugh is also a bit of a dreamer, who calls the Constitution is his “religion.”

Consequently, where others saw only indefensible evil, Baugh recognized chances to shore up a basic principle he says he cherishes -- in the USA everyone is entitled to a fair trial. To make that talk into more -- a walk -- at times Baugh has represented notorious clients, charged with heinous high-profile crimes. “Most lawyers don’t get the opportunity to take on such cases,” said Baugh in his roomy office on Cherry Street in Oregon Hill. “Criminal lawyers don’t represent people; we represent a set of principles.”

By “such cases,” no doubt, Baugh was referring to two of his clients, in particular. In 1999 there was the unrepentant cross-burning Ku Klux Klan official, Barry E. Black, of Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Then there was Mohamed Rashed Daoud al-‘Owhali, card-carrying follower of Osama bin Laden. For his role in the 1998 bombing of the American embassy in Kenya al-‘Owhali received a life sentence in 2001, supposedly, with no chance of release.

In pursuit of taking stands Baugh has served a little time (five days for his 1991 courthouse scuffle with then-Commonwealth’s Attorney Joe Morrissey) and he has served on the Richmond School Board. I met Baugh shortly after he began his law practice in Richmond in 1983. Over the years talking with him about politics has always been interesting, because he is not the least bit shy about saying what he thinks, off the top of his head.

During the interview that preceded the Q and A section below a new aspect of Baugh was revealed to me. It was a side of him I hadn’t seen before -- the proud son, with big shoes to fill. His father, Howard L. Baugh (who grew up in Petersburg), was one of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen, who flew P-40s and P-51s in World War II.

The unpracticed warmth in the son’s voice, as he spoke of his father’s military adventures and the medal, France’s Legion of Honor, that was bestowed upon him in a ceremony in Paris last summer, underlined his adoration for his father. “He was always my hero,” said Baugh.

SLANT: As men you had to work with how difficult were Black and al-‘Owhali? Were they in any way similar?

BAUGH: Mr. Black and Mr. al-‘Owhali were zealots, persons driven by a cause. Both were very polite and gentlemanly. There was an initial phase of distrust, but that is to be expected. Due to the nature of the defense, I did not have to work with Mr. Black. The facts were set and uncontested. The sole reason for the trial was to make a record from which to appeal and challenge the statute. With al-Owhali -- a death case -- there was much more work and the need to get the jury to understand the defendant’s perspective to assess the morality, or immorality, of his actions.

S: To prepare for the al-‘Owhali case what did you do beyond gathering facts, to better understand your client’s mindset, and al-Qaida’s motives and its way of operating?

B: For the al-‘Owhali case I tried to read the Koran. Impossible! I did read history books, a lot of Internet information from that area and a wonderful book, “Teach Yourself Islam,” from a woman in England. This 250-page book exposed me to my ignorance and the general ignorance of the West, concerning this religion. When I understood these things I could understand the framework upon which my client’s logic was laid.

S: What does the general public in this country need to better understand about al-Qaida’s nature?

B: In [al-‘Owhali’s] trial, Al-Fadl [a former member of al-Qaida] testified: ‘You cannot understand al-Qaida unless you understand Islam. We have more people willing to martyr themselves than we have targets.

One of the realities of democracy is the need for a well-educated and informed population. [In America] news programs are a collection of sound bites, and the news is slanted. Everyone concerned with the preservation of the world should spend some time learning about Islam and the truth about it.

S: What’s your stand on the military tribunals, rather than trials, for the Guantanamo detainees?

B: The entire policy reminds me of a lousy Nazi movie and [it] reflects a lack of faith in the brilliant philosophy of our constitution -- which is not merely a list of rules, but more accurately, our morality, our moral rudder which guides us and who we are.

S: What’s your reaction to the call for Constitutional amendments to ban same-sex marriages and flag-burning?

B: The proposed same-sex marriage ban and flag-burning amendments would undermine the constitution from within. The sole purpose of the bill of rights is to protect us from our government and the majority of ourselves. When the majority and the government suggest amending to limit rights, rather than expand rights, it should be viewed with great suspicion.

S: Regarding Virginia’s laws and practices, what needs to be changed right away?

B: Virginia needs to be more inclusive. The laws preventing full restoration of convicted felons need changing. These laws are not odd when one considers Virginia’s history of trying to limit the voting base to property owners and whites.

S: Finally, regarding politics, are there any more runs for political office in you?

B: I was on the school board and lost reelection. I still feel that the school system is the key to the resolution of the nation’s woes. Democracy requires a well educated and informed populace. The quality of students being graduated from America’s schools is pitiful, by and large. Basic information is not known to most and information which is not directly related to some paycheck is deemed unnecessary.

If I could spend more time in Richmond, instead of following my practice around the country, I would run for that office again. We cannot make all parents good parents. Therefore [at school] we must expose younger children to that to which they should be exposed. We need to shape a new perspective.

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