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Harry T. Alexander, 85

Harry T. Alexander, 85; controversial D.C. judge, defense lawyer

Harry T. Alexander talks to reporters outside D.C. Superior Court in 1977, when he was defending the leader of the Hanafi Muslim sect on murder and kidnapping charges.
Harry T. Alexander talks to reporters outside D.C. Superior Court in 1977, when he was defending the leader of the Hanafi Muslim sect on murder and kidnapping charges. (Doug Chevalier/the Washington Post)
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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 24, 2010

Harry T. Alexander, 85, a charismatic and controversial D.C. Superior Court judge who became a criminal defense lawyer and represented a leader of the Hanafi Muslim sect on murder and kidnapping charges, died July 8 at Washington Hospital Center.

He had had several strokes in recent years, but the cause of death was cardiopulmonary arrest, his family said.

Judge Alexander, one of seven children born to a New Orleans shoemaker and seamstress, supported himself in menial jobs before completing Georgetown University's law school as one of its first black graduates. He went to work for the Justice Department and became a trial lawyer in the criminal division.

In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed him to the D.C. Court of General Sessions, which became D.C. Superior Court, a trial court of general jurisdiction.

In the turbulent civil rights era and its aftermath, Judge Alexander was one of the District's most polarizing leaders. He said that he embraced a reputation as a civil and judicial activist and that his approach was important at a time when the legacy of racial segregation was still felt keenly in school districts, courts and police stations.

"People complained that I didn't have tact," he told The Washington Post in 1977. "What is tact? What good has tact wrought for the masses of blacks? Only when the system feels pressured does it release some of the people's rights."

A battle over 'Mrs.'

During his 10-year term, Judge Alexander's courtroom became the center of a judicial storm. His detractors, who included police groups and members of the city's legal and political establishments, called his comments and rulings from the bench "frivolous" and "capricious."

In 1972, a judicial commission censured Judge Alexander in an unusually public way. Although noting his early achievements and "conscientious and effective judicial service" in hundreds of cases, the five-member, biracial commission rebuked him for several instances of "intemperate and injudicious remarks tending to downgrade litigants, witnesses, counsel, court officials and others appearing before him."

The commission highlighted one instance in particular, when Judge Alexander chastised a white police officer who had referred to a black witness by her full name without the prefix "Mrs." The judge dismissed the case, which involved a 16-year-old facing a weapons charge, because the prosecutor asked for continuance after the judge refused to let the officer continue testifying.

The judicial commission also reported that Judge Alexander threatened to jail a social worker who had angered him in court and that he accused other judges of racism when they disagreed with him on court matters.

To his staunchest supporters, including politicians such as former D.C. mayor Marion Barry and editors in the black media such as Calvin Rolark of the Washington Informer, Judge Alexander was a compassionate champion of racial dignity and due process.

To the rank and file in some of the city's black neighborhoods, Judge Alexander's outspoken style and upbraiding of police officers and prosecutors shaped his image as "a folk hero," The Post reported in 1977.


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