The legal world has lost a giant, literally. Bobby Stafford stood 6’8,” had a hand that could encircle your head, and spoke with a resonant bass voice that could be heard in the next county. After struggling with a severe heart ailment for much of the last year, he returned to his native South Carolina to recuperate and died after suffering a massive stroke on Tuesday, his daughter Stacy Stafford said.
Stafford was a criminal defense lawyer in Northern Virginia and the District, which meant he represented a lot of people who did some very reprehensible things. But he was so charming, and so knowledgeable about the law, and so endlessly talkative, that prosecutors and judges who typically cringe at the sight of another expensively dressed defense attorney instead looked forward to his appearances.
“The world is a sadder, drabber place without him,” Fairfax County Chief Circuit Judge Dennis J. Smith said Wednesday.
Stafford may or may not have been 71. That was one of Stafford’s closely guarded secrets, and his daughter said he would have a “conniption fit” if he saw it in print, but public records would seem to confirm it.
He practiced in courts small and large, traffic to federal, doing both criminal and civil work, always on behalf of wrongly accused folks, he said. But he also volunteered his time extensively, serving on the Board of Visitors of Norfolk State University, president of the Arlington Community Action Program, general counsel of the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center in Alexandria and board member of the Campbell AME Church.
He was born and raised in Williamsburg County, S.C., as one of 13 children, a fact he was not reluctant to share. He earned his undergrad degree from North Carolina A&T and his law degree from Howard University, and proceeded to practice law for the next 46 years out of a cozy office on Pendleton Street in Alexandria, away from the fancier, shinier spreads of his colleagues. He was married for 46 years to attorney Mary Raby and had one daughter, Stacy, who is also a lawyer.
But it was his great sense of humor, as well as utter resourcefulness in legal matters, that endeared him to so many, and created a hive of activity around him in courthouse hallways. In addition to his massive handshakes, he was also given to the occasional crushing bear hug. I believe one of my ribs is still cracked from one of those.
In the courtroom, he was perpetually solicitous, with lines like, “Oh your honor, you are as wise as you are just.” He could argue legal fine points with his basso profundo until your eyes were crossed.
But he was also good. Several years ago, he represented a minister who was charged with raping and beating a woman outside a hotel in Fairfax City. He wrangled such a good plea deal out of the Fairfax County prosecutor’s office, and filed such an extensive pile of briefs, that the minister was sentenced to only 16 months and not made to register as a sex offender.
If I saw Stafford in the hallway right now, we would resume arguing about that case.
More recently, he represented one of the folks who were driving around Fairfax County burglarizing the homes of South Asians who kept large amounts of gold stashed inside, stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of cash and valuables.
But Stafford knew that in state court, simply having the tools of the burglary trade, such as a police scanner, crowbar and list of South Asians’ addresses, was not proof of any specific break-in, absent fingerprints or stolen loot. A Fairfax judge threw out the case.
[Federal prosecutors later took up the case and Stafford’s client wound up in prison. But by then, Stafford had been hospitalized.]
Fairfax Commonwealth’s Attorney Ray Morrogh said Wednesday that Stafford “treated everyone with civility and kindness even in the midst of hotly contested trials. Bobby also had a playful sense of humor and was quick to smile and laugh. Bobby was built like a professional football tackle and one time, after we had a dustup in the court room he snuck up behind me, put me in a bear hug and lifted me up in the air, my feet dangling, and said ‘you're in big trouble now.’ Not knowing who it was I thought I was about to meet my maker. It wasn't until he let out a great big belly laugh that I knew it was him. We laughed about this many times over the years. The only thing bigger than Bobby's body was his heart. I learned a lot from him about being a lawyer...It is a sad day and a tremendous loss for the Bar and the Commonwealth.”
Stafford also was active in Democratic politics, including working on the campaign of Shirley Chisholm, and he was invariably sharply dressed, with expansive double-breasted pinstriped suits and vast white hats to accompany the gold rings on his fingers. His clients loved him because he knew the streets and every rung up the ladder from there.
And he was also just a really decent guy. One day, we were having lunch in the Fairfax courthouse cafeteria. As usual, he began to analyze my typically rumpled appearance and declared, “I love that tie. That tie would go perfectly with my shirt.”
I gave it to him. (Sorry Mom.) But then, I needed a tie for the rest of the day. So he gave me his tie, which was far nicer than any I owned. And soon he took off.
And when I tried on his tie, which was designed for a 6’8” man, it hung down to my knees.
I’ve got it on today, in his honor. So long Bobby. My rib still hurts, y’know.