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

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 24, 2010; B05

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.

Judge Alexander received community leadership awards and flirted with a run for D.C. Council in 1974. After the council unanimously declared a day in his honor in 1976, he led a motorcade around the city to make civil rights speeches.

When he arrived at the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court, Judge Alexander was confronted by a police officer and said: "Sir, arrest me. I feel like Dr. Martin Luther King."

The officer demurred, but Chief Justice Warren E. Burger did not and told Judge Alexander that he risked being arrested if he ever again gave a speech on the court steps without a permit.

Hanafi trial

In 1976, hearing that his reappointment would probably be an uphill battle, Judge Alexander withdrew from consideration and set up a practice as a criminal defense lawyer.

He often arrived in court wearing tapered three-piece suits, felt fedoras and necklaces. One necklace carried a slave identification tag that read "sold," and another displayed the image of two clasped hands.

His highest-profile client was Hamaas Abdul Khaalis, who in March 1977 led 11 other heavily armed Hanafi Muslims in a siege of three downtown Washington buildings. The standoff lasted 39 hours. Dozens of hostages were taken. One person was killed.

In the D.C. Superior Court trial, Judge Alexander repeatedly clashed with the presiding judge, Nicholas S. Nunzio, known as "No Nonsense Nunzio."

He objected when Nunzio called him "Mr. Alexander" instead of "judge." Nunzio told the defense attorney not to "orate" when making objections but to state his arguments, and he was irritated by Judge Alexander's aggressive behavior toward witnesses.

The Hanafis were found guilty of charges that included murder, conspiracy and armed kidnapping. In 1979, a three-judge panel of the D.C. Court of Appeals upheld the conviction and said Judge Alexander had "made improper opening remarks to the jury, argued with witnesses, interrupted the court, commented on the testimony and the court's rulings, asked improper questions and 'baited' the court."

Judge Alexander continued to attract criticism for his professional behavior, including failing repeatedly to appear in court. In 1985, the D.C. Court of Appeals suspended him from practicing law for two years because of disciplinary violations.

"There is one standard for black folks and one standard for white folks," Judge Alexander said at the time. "But this decision has not made me feel incompetent. I'll never be incompetent. My background is better than most people."

Harry Toussaint Alexander was born July 22, 1924, in New Orleans. He was a Navy pharmacist's mate during World War II and was detached to a Marine Corps unit during the battle of Iwo Jima.

He graduated in 1949 from Xavier University of Louisiana and then was admitted to Georgetown's law school. He joined the Justice Department after graduating in 1952.

Working in the department's criminal division in the early 1960s, he was chief prosecutor in several labor union corruption cases. He won convictions in the embezzlement and conspiracy trial of a bakery union president, James G. Cross, and several associates.

In 1949, he married Beatrice Perkins Alexander. In addition to his wife, survivors include four children, Normastel "Norma" Hart, Agnes Yates, Harry Alexander Jr. and Louis Alexander, all of Washington; a brother; and eight grandchildren. A daughter, Beatrice Ann, died in 1973 at 9 of a rare virus.

After being suspended, Judge Alexander focused on mentoring and volunteering with community groups. He never practiced law again but insisted on being called "judge."

"A judge keeps his title," he once said, "until someone takes it away or until he dies."

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