McDonnell judge presides with humor and impatience


Sketch of the jury listening to evidence in the trial of former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell. (Richard Johnson/The Washington Post)

Two teams in the corruption trial of former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, were obvious long before witnesses took the stand: prosecutors and the defense.

But another courtroom team has emerged as the federal case continues in Richmond: U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer and the jurors he is trying to spare from repetitive testimony, “ridiculous” questions and unnecessary hours in their high-backed, black-leather chairs.

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The McDonnell trial is widely showcasing Spencer’s style — already well-known to friends and lawyers who have worked with him during his decades as a prosecutor and judge.

The 65-year-old, they say, is disciplined about time and preparation. He is quick-witted and direct. Yet the father of three and onetime preacher also relates warmly to others without resorting to homespun patter.

Spencer’s ability to connect with jurors was notable when he tried cases and flashes now as he reminds the McDonnell jury of its duties in deciding whether the former first couple conspired to lend the prestige of the governor’s office to a nutritional supplement executive who gave them expensive gifts and loans.

Appearing sometimes aggravated, sometimes amused, it is as if Spencer can picture the balloon-bubble comments bobbing above restive courtroom observers.

[Related: Sketchy antics at the McDonnell trial]

“Don’t ask a ridiculous question,” he told an attorney pressing a witness. “If you’ve got some point, make it,” he scolded another laboriously dissecting loans.

When a lawyer said he had lengthy questioning still to come, the efficient Spencer ordered a brief recess, but not before saying, “You’re breaking my heart.” And he abruptly ended another long day by declaring: “We’re going to stop right here, primarily because I can’t take another second.”

A graduate of Clark College in Atlanta and Harvard Law School, Spencer was an Army lawyer and then a federal prosecutor in the District and Richmond. In 1986, he became the first African American federal judge in Virginia after President Ronald Reagan nominated him to the Eastern District and later became chief judge.

Some colleagues from the prosecutor years recall him softly humming hymns before he headed into a particularly contentious day in court. Others remember his closings, with rich cadences that drew courthouse spectators.

List of gifts given to the McDonnell family from Jonnie Williams.

Roscoe C. Howard Jr., who became U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, joined the Virginia prosecutor’s office after Spencer.

Howard, now with a private firm, recounted trying a case with a colleague who made an impassioned appeal to the jury. After jurors left the courtroom, Howard said, the judge called his colleague to the bench, and when he returned to his seat, Howard asked what had been said. “He told me the judge said he had seen that closing style used very effectively by Jim Spencer over many years. But that he was no Jim Spencer.”

As a prosecutor, Spencer had “all the requisite skills in terms of presentation and presence and legal knowledge — and there are few people who exude the integrity he does. My view is juries are quick to pick up on that,” said George J. Terwilliger III, a former deputy attorney general of the United States who was a rookie prosecutor in the District with Spencer for major crimes. Now in private practice, Terwilliger is the attorney for Jerri Fulkerson, the onetime personal assistant to Jonnie R. Williams Sr., the supplement company executive in the McDonnell case.

The tight courtroom control Spencer shows is a trait of the Eastern District, nicknamed the “Rocket Docket” for its pacing.

A former clerk to Spencer, Jim Stuckey remembers a scheduling call in which lawyers said they expected to be ready for trial in about a year.

“Judge Spencer just chuckled and told them that a year from now this case will be a memory,” said Stuckey, an attorney for a South Carolina utility. “He doesn’t suffer fools.”

Being blunt is trademark Spencer.

In 2003, while sentencing a political party officer in an eavesdropping scandal, the judge cut off a lawyer attempting to explain his client’s chicanery. “If you get up here and start excusing what he did, you’re going to tick me off. Please don’t do that,” Spencer said.

He was equally direct about judicial processes he finds objectionable, as in 2010 when mandatory sentencing rules obliged Spencer to give a former drug informant life in prison for selling crack cocaine.

The life term “is ridiculous. It is a travesty,” Spencer said, according to a court transcript. “This is just silly.”

Spencer is on senior status at the court, a semi-retirement that coincides with the retirement of his wife, Margaret P. Spencer, a circuit court judge for Richmond.

Spencer’s staff declined an interview request — not unusual for a judge and particularly for a judge in the middle of a case.

But he reflected on his path in February at an awards ceremony in Richmond, where he invoked his parents and love of family.

His speech had the oratorical flourishes and rhythms of a minister — which Spencer also was as an associate at a church in the early 1980s while pursuing divinity studies at Howard University.

In his home town of Florence, S.C., his “unlettered and untutored” parents worked two and three jobs and believed “without hesi­ta­tion or doubt that education was the only way” to rise above “less desirable circumstances,” Spencer said at the videotaped dinner .

His father had five grades of schooling — and Spencer said he himself was taught by teachers in segregated schools who managed to give him a quality education despite “second-rate salaries, secondhand books and second-class facilities.”

Spencer serves as a mentor for high school boys in a program run by Omega Psi Phi that meets every other week, said Steve Malone, one of Spencer’s fraternity brothers, longtime friends and regular golf partners. (Golf trophies are one of the few ornaments that lawyers mention seeing in his chambers.)

Malone also works with the program, “but my commitment is nowhere near Spence’s” as he calls his friend. “I don’t think I’ve ever been around someone more truly passionate about helping young people, and his message to them is this: There is no excuse for not succeeding.”

Malone said “it doesn’t take but a couple of minutes around Spence” to see that he is “a very witty guy” and “how much he loves his family” — including a current delight, Malone said, in saying that with his son out of medical school his children now are off his payroll.

But Spencer’s warmth extends beyond his home, Malone said.

Spencer loves poetry, Malone said, and during a recent couples outing gave a book of poems to Malone’s wife — a twin whose sister died, leaving behind two children whom Malone’s wife helped raise.

The poems included one about what it means to be an aunt when a mother isn’t available. “It was so very like him to do that,” Malone said.

Spencer flashed that same humanity and humor when he dismissed jurors early for the weekend after days of hearing the defense team walk through a vivisection of the former governor’s marriage and the blossoming of his friendship with Williams.

“You’ve been troupers,” Spencer said. “You are hanging tough.”

He assured them that the trial was making progress, even if it might not seem so.

“Have a wonderful weekend. Make sure you hug your loved ones,” Spencer said.

“You’re all making a tremendous sacrifice. Believe me, Sunday, I’ll be in church and your names will be on my lips.”

Rosalind S. Helderman, Laura Vozzella and Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.

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Mary Pat Flaherty works on investigative and long-range stories. Her work has won numerous national awards, including the Pulitzer Prize.
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