Farewell to the VC3 Alumni and faculty reflect on the legacy of the Virginia Capital Case Clearinghouse, closing its doors after over 30 years serving capital defense attorneys.
On March 8, 1974, a 19-year-old Ft. Bragg soldier from Chicago named Robert Gary Bock Jr. was sentenced to death for the fatal stabbing of a woman in rural North Carolina.
That was a defining moment for Bill Geimer, a young defense attorney.
“When my client was sentenced to death, I can tell you that’s when your intellectual college-student opposition to the death penalty turned to stark reality,” recalled Geimer, noting that a 5–4 U.S. Supreme Court decision eventually saved Bock from execution.
Memories of that case followed Geimer to Lexington, where he joined the law school faculty in 1980. He spent his early years establishing his academic bona fides and earning tenure. All the while, he felt “the pull and tug of the need to do something on an issue that had been so important to me for a long time.”
Then, in March 1987, the law school hosted a two-day symposium on death penalty reform, and one of the speakers mentioned the possibility of a student program on the issue.
“That,” Geimer said, “flipped my switch and inspired me to say, ‘Well, I think we can do this at W&L.’”
Geimer organized the clinic during the 1987–88 academic year. They began, he said, by making things up as they went along.
“There is a maxim that says death is different,” he noted. “The idea is that when somebody’s life is at stake, the courts are particularly careful in reviewing the law and giving clients the benefit of that careful review. But the exact opposite was in effect in Virginia. You had people going to trial on Monday, and they were in the death house by Thursday night.”
Geimer’s band of second- and third-year students, working out of the lower level of Lewis Hall, began writing motions and supporting briefs for defense attorneys, many of whom had never tried a capital case. In the succeeding years, almost 400 W&L students participated in VC3, assisting hundreds of Virginia attorneys to provide clients with an adequate defense.
The clinic’s fundamental objective was to promote an adequate defense in capital cases. Indeed, that 1987 symposium — the one where Geimer’s switch was flipped — began with a presentation of three death penalty cases that suffered from blatantly inadequate counsel. The speaker was a South Carolina attorney named David Bruck, who would eventually join the W&L faculty and become VC3’s third director.
At the time of the conference, said Bruck, there was a lot of righteous concern about how inadequate the defense function was in Virginia, where executions were steadily increasing. Although law schools were beginning to organize death penalty clinics, almost all were designed to represent individuals already on death row.
“Bill Geimer’s great insight was that, in Virginia, a clinic like that was too late,” explained Bruck. “Once the death sentence was imposed in Virginia, odds were extremely good that you were going to be executed no matter what was in the record. The idea he hatched was to have a clinic that focused at the pretrial and trial level. For the most part, it was amateur hour on the defense side in case after case; prosecutors had a decisive advantage with lots of experience in these cases. The goal was to raise the standard of defense representation.”
Otto Konrad ’91L was an early participant in VC3. His personal opposition to the death penalty drew him to the clinic, but, he said, VC3 was never about abolishing the death penalty, even if that’s how some saw it. Instead, he said, the students provided resources to overtaxed attorneys so they could represent their clients effectively.
“We worked on motions and on pleadings with our partners in private practice. Our clients were the attorneys, not the defendants,” said Konrad, now a partner with the Richmond firm Williams Mullen.
Despite Geimer’s insistence, confirmed by others, that VC3 was not about abolishing the death penalty, not everyone bought it. Even inside the law school, Geimer said, the clinic was a curiosity. “People wondered, ‘Who are they? A bunch of anti-death penalty bomb throwers?’”
In April 1989, only a year into VC3’s existence, the Richmond Times-Dispatch attacked the clinic for one of its continuing education seminars. The editorial read, in part: “When this W&L clearinghouse was established last summer, Professor Geimer exclaimed it that ‘will provide a great service to the commonwealth.’ Relatives of capital murder victims may beg to differ. So may people who value education more highly than political indoctrination.”
Geimer admits he may have aggravated matters a bit by “shaking my fist in the face of the attorney general and the governor and everybody else.” But he always appreciated how the deans, especially the late Randy Bezanson, deflected the flak, leaving him and the students free to do their work.
Winning a $60,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education in 1991 helped put the program on solid financial footing. Elizabeth Bennett ’90L, Geimer’s wife, wrote that successful grant as an original member of VC3.
Geimer remembered being called into Dean Bezanson’s office once the grant was announced. “He told me that VC3 had earned a place in the school’s regular annual budget on the basis of its academic value,” Geimer said. “W&L deserves great credit, because why should a small, privately endowed university take on this acute need in the state? Why wasn’t it Mr. Jefferson’s university down the road, for instance? I owe a great debt of thanks to all my former colleagues and to the university for the support.”
Matthew Engle ’01L was surprised to learn that the clinic had ever been controversial. He’s seen VC3 from two sides. Not only did he participate as a student, but he has served as interim director on three occasions, most recently this year.
“What I really admire about Washington and Lee is that they have been willing to take on what can be a very politically unpopular cause,” said Engle, who has specialized in capital cases in his Charlottesville firm, Donovan Engle. “One thing we should all be able to agree on as lawyers is that people facing the death penalty should get the highest level of legal representation, and W&L has put that principle into practice.”
Bruck agrees with Engle’s assessment. VC3, he said, was the first statewide entity to identify the standards all defense lawyers should meet along with the approaches that should inform them in every case.
“In the years before I got there, I think VC3 helped establish what you could call a standard of care for capital defense in Virginia that hadn’t been there,” said Bruck. “In those early years, it was like a MASH unit, mass-producing pretrial motions in the days when everything was done by paper and regular mail.”
Otto Konrad remembers the clinic as “our own little law school firm” with Geimer as the partner and the students as associates.
“Bill gave us direction and focus on what we were to do for the client, which was the lawyer with whom we were working,” he said. “He reviewed our product and gave us feedback. We’d make adjustments and send it to the practitioner. For me, it was the perfect opportunity to work with a professor in a non-classroom setting on real-world problems. Nowadays law schools do this as a matter of course. But this was rare back then when we were pretty much locked into the Socratic method.”
Page McThenia ’00L had two “managing partners”— Geimer for one year and the late Roger Groot, who took over the program in 1999 and was director until 2004 when Bruck arrived. Since Page McThenia’s father, Uncas McThenia ’58, ’63L, was on the law school faculty, she’d known both Geimer and Groot as family friends.
“VC3 was fundamental to my law school experience,” she said. “Bill and Roger had distinctive styles, but we worked as a really good team with both of them.”
Learning to work as a team was a lesson in itself. To be successful, capital cases cannot rely on a single defense attorney. Bruck believes there are no good capital defense lawyers who are lone rangers. “That’s the mark of a bad lawyer in this particular area,” he said, “and it never works out well.”
Daniel Goldman ’11L seconded that observation. Goldman is the capital defender for Northern Virginia. “In the early days of indigent defense, people were lucky to get one lawyer who maybe knew something about criminal defense but maybe didn’t,” he said. “We’ve grown to where we understand that someone charged with a serious crime needs a team of people — not just lawyers. Investigators and mitigation specialists are crucial.”
Much of what is involved in death penalty work, said Bruck, is not particularly about the law. It has to do with psychology, sociology, history and just human relationships.
“It can be child rearing and trauma, the experience of being a crime victim or being the victim of abuse or neglect or systemic racism,” he explained. “These are things that are not covered in the law school curriculum. But it is the stuff of capital defense.”
Helen Konrad ’91L was in that first wave of VC3 participants. She was drawn by Geimer’s infectious passion and recalled “spellbinding” conversations with him on the topic. But, she quickly added, the experience was a good lesson in being a lawyer primarily because it was all about proving your case and taking unpopular positions for broader policy reasons.
“Bill taught you this life lesson about mitigating evidence,” said Konrad, who is now director in the immigration practice group of McCandlish Holton P.C., in Richmond. “To stop the analysis at a heinous crime misses such a big part of life and how people get to this point and why they get to this point. It’s so easy to see black and white and just stop there.”
Engle has a particularly vivid recollection of watching Groot at work in a Wise County courtroom when members of VC3 accompanied him to a trial.
“We were there when they were selecting the jury and sat at the defense table with Roger and his co-counsel and even helped them pick which jurors they wanted to use their preemptory challenges on. It was a fantastic hand-on experience.”
Nine years later, Engle sat at the defense table in a Louisa County courtroom for what proved to be a historic occasion — the last death penalty case in Virginia history. He and his co-counsels were successful in getting that case dismissed in October 2020. Five months later, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam signed legislation abolishing the death penalty in the Commonwealth.
Geimer, who moved to Canada principally because of his opposition to the death penalty, thought Virginia would never abolish the death penalty in his lifetime. Bruck, on the other hand, thought it would happen, but he was still surprised that it happened in 2021.
“The death penalty disappears gradually. It doesn’t disappear all at once,” said Bruck. “We’ve demonstrated that Virginia can do fine without it, that it wasn’t worth the expense and the division and the eye-gouging struggle in every case that had characterized murder trials in the state.”
As Bruck noted, the state finally created the conditions for a fair fight between the prosecution and the defense. Those conditions included the creation of four regional capital defender offices. When Bruck arrived as director in 2004, much of VC3’s work had shifted from assisting individual defense attorneys to supporting the four state offices.
“Those offices had a lot to learn, too. They were new to this,” said Bruck. “I think the clinic did a fair amount of good in working with those offices and also in working with private lawyers in cases where the capital defender offices weren’t appointed.”
Goldman joined the Northern Virginia capital defender office shortly after his W&L graduation and worked his way up to being the lead lawyer. Once Gov. Northam signed the law to end the death penalty, the state announced the four offices, including Goldman’s, would close.
“We’d always joked that we were putting ourselves out of business,” said Goldman. “Now we move on to the next thing. But I still have work to do on my current cases, even though they’re not death cases. Much of what we do is try to get death out of the cases and move on from there.”
Kristina Joyner-Leslie ’10L has worked as a public defender since graduation and was a leader in the abolition movement. She spent three years with the Office of the Public Defender in Maryland, three more in Northern Virginia with Goldman and now is an assistant federal public defender back in Maryland. In addition, she is president of the board of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. She credited Bruck for her career trajectory.
“I was blown away by a death penalty course with David. I’d never thought about the death penalty. It wasn’t something that my family talked about around the dinner table,” she said. “The course caused me to apply to VC3 in my third year, and it’s David’s fault I’m involved in his work.”
She had been expecting the death penalty decision in Virginia and thinks a confluence of factors speeded the process — the Black Lives Matter movement, the pandemic, the George Floyd case and the fact that Gov. Northam wanted it as part of his legacy. Plus, defense attorneys were winning, and there hadn’t been a death penalty in a decade. “Everything was lining up and gearing toward abolition,” she said.
As VC3 disbands, a victim of its own success in many ways, Geimer is indebted to the students’ commitment and their creativity and for the support he received from both the university and attorneys in the death penalty defense community. “Thinking back on it,” he said, “I am extremely grateful to so many people.”
“I never imagined VC3 would have a mission accomplished moment,” said Bruck. “I only hope students had experiences in the clinic that broadened their perspective of what it is to be a good lawyer— to be a good lawyer for people who desperately need representation.”
The Human Story
Helen Konrad jumped directly into death penalty work when she left W&L. In fact, her experience with VC3 was one reason she was hired by her Richmond firm, which was then involved in defending one of the highest profile death penalty cases in Virginia’s history — the Lem Tuggle murder case. Tim Kaine, now Virginia’s junior senator, was Tuggle’s attorney
“At W&L, Lem Tuggle was Bill Geimer’s poster child for everything we were doing, because the case was navigating its way through the multiple lower court levels on its way to the Supreme Court,” said Konrad. “Once I began working on the case with Tim Kaine, I had to write briefs to try to unravel the case, and it was really difficult. You are stuck with the facts of the case; Tuggle had had a terrible counsel, and the record was sealed so very few appeal points were preserved.
“I never found anything more complicated and difficult. Tim is obviously a brilliant guy and Bill Geimer is just as brilliant in trying to teach you those areas of law that were so challenging. I feel like Bill made me such a good lawyer because I came out the other side and everything was easy compared with death penalty law.”
Bruck readily acknowledges that capital defense is complex litigation that requires a lawyer to be organized and think systematically. He also believes VC3 provides a lesson that serves students in every area of the law — do not prejudge.
“Capital defense, like few other areas, requires the ability to pierce through the surface of things and try to understand the human story that underlies every human situation no matter how dire,” he said. “The willingness to do that is a mark of good capital defense lawyer but, in some ways, I think it’s the mark of a good lawyer period.”