Carleton Penn II, 86

Carleton Penn II, 86; 'No-Nonsense' Va. Judge Oversaw 2 Prominent Murder Trials

Carleton Penn II was
Carleton Penn II was "a thoughtful, compassionate, no-nonsense judge," a lawyer says. (1985 Washington Post File Photo)
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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 14, 2009

Carleton Penn II, 86, a longtime Virginia circuit court judge who presided over two high-profile hunt-country murder trials of the 1980s and 1990s, died Aug. 26 at a hospital in Portland, Maine. He died from injuries received in an auto accident in Conway, N.H., on July 17. He had homes in Conway and Leesburg.

Judge Penn was a Loudoun County judge in the 1950s before being named to the Virginia circuit court in 1970, hearing cases in Loudoun, Fauquier and Rappahannock counties for more than 30 years.

In 1985, he was the judge in the murder trial of American University official William "Bull" Evans-Smith, who was charged with strangling his wife that year in their Loudoun home. A jury convicted Evans-Smith of second-degree murder, and he was sentenced to five years in prison.

He was granted a new trial in 1989 on grounds that Judge Penn had erroneously allowed hearsay into evidence. In the second trial, before another judge, Evans-Smith was convicted again and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

After serving five years, Evans-Smith walked free in 1994 when a federal appeals court overturned the second conviction, ruling that prosecutors had not proved his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Judge Penn officially retired from the bench in 1987 but continued to preside over cases in various Virginia courts for an additional 17 years before his final retirement. In 1998, he was the judge in the murder trial of millionaire heiress Susan Cummings, who was charged with killing her boyfriend, Roberto Villegas, an Argentine polo star. Villegas had been shot four times in Cummings's kitchen.

The trial attracted international attention, and at one point the jury toured Cummings's 300-acre estate, with the accused killer acting as hostess. In the end, Cummings was convicted of manslaughter and served 60 days in jail.

The defense attorney in the Evans-Smith and Cummings cases was Blair D. Howard of Warrenton, who last week praised Judge Penn as a "highly respected jurist" who managed his courtroom well, even under the glare of such controversial trials.

"He was a thoughtful, compassionate, no-nonsense judge," Howard said, "but you always knew you would get a fair trial when you went into Judge Penn's courtroom."

Judge Penn, known to his friends as "Biff," was born Sept. 8, 1922, in Roanoke and graduated from the University of Virginia. He was a Marine Corps officer in World War II and received the Silver Star for his actions as a forward observer directing artillery fire during a pitched battle on the Pacific island of Peleliu in 1944. He was seriously wounded in the battle.

After the war, he returned to the University of Virginia and received his law degree in 1948. He then practiced law in Leesburg and served as a county judge from 1954 to 1958, before resuming his private practice. In 1968, he was appointed to complete the term of a county prosecutor who had died in office. He became a circuit court judge two years later.

He was president of the Leesburg Lions Club, a Mason and a member of the Leesburg Planning Commission. In the 1950s, he served on a federal commission that acquired land for Dulles Airport and other projects.

On the bench, Judge Penn was known for his courtesy and gentility. According to Frederick R. Howard, a former clerk of the Loudoun court, one man sentenced to prison paused before leaving the court to thank the judge for "treating him like a gentleman."

Judge Penn enjoyed playing tennis in all kinds of weather and sometimes brushed snow from the court for wintertime games. In recent years, he was a member of the Anglican Church of Our Saviour-Oatlands in Leesburg.

His marriages to Nancy Musgrave Penn and Carole Williams Penn ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife of four years, Joan Legg Penn of Leesburg and Conway; two children from his first marriage, Carleton Penn III of Leesburg and Nancy H. Penn of Coronado, Calif.; three stepdaughters from his second marriage, Carole Lynne Williams and Stacy W. Geddis, both of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Leslie L. Williams of Boca Raton, Fla.; three stepchildren from his third marriage, Katherine K. Legg of Portland, Maine, Mary Legg Nordmark of Chatham, N.H., and John Graydon Legg of Rumney, N.H.; and six grandchildren.

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