At courthouse, Washington legal community mourns Lawrence Barcella

E. Lawrence Barcella Jr., shown in 1997.
E. Lawrence Barcella Jr., shown in 1997. (The Washington Post)
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By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 29, 2010; 11:22 PM

A memorial service at Washington's federal district courthouse Monday marked a rare gathering of the capital's legal elite, a chance for a now-preeminent generation of lawyers to honor the early passing of one of their own.

Longtime federal prosecutor and distinguished white-collar defense attorney E. Lawrence Barcella Jr., who died Nov. 4 at 65, was a pillar of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District from 1971 to 1986 and later was a partner at the law firm Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker.

Barcella, a Washington native, led the U.S. government's investigation into the 1976 assassination of former Chilean ambassador Orlando Letelier, a leader of the opposition to the regime of Augusto Pinochet Letelier's death in a car bombing at Sheridan Circle transfixed Washington and Embassy Row. Combined with Barcella's investigations of the 1983 bombings of the U.S. Embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut and the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro, the cases made him the Justice Department's de facto lead terrorism prosecutor.

Friends said Barcella, a charming extrovert, personified a new breed of hard-headed Washington lawyer - known less perhaps for the whispered influence of generations past than for its media savvy and mastery of an emerging culture of investigation.

"He epitomized our generation, moving from Edward Bennett Williams's time to ours," said Michael J. Madigan, a former counsel to the Senate Watergate committee and the Church committee, the Senate panel that, in the 1970s, investigated FBI and CIA activities.

Together with Madigan and other District prosecutors of that era - marked by Watergate and agitation for D.C. home rule, the rise of international terrorism and resurgent local crime - Barcella was part of a bumper crop of power lawyers who now are at the top of Washington's legal scene.

"His commitment to strengthening our justice system was clear, and his passion for his work was obvious," said another alumnus of the office, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who served as U.S. attorney for the District from 1993 to 1997. Calling Barcella a "mentor and role model for countless lawyers," Holder told an overflow crowd of hundreds of judges, prosecutors and law enforcement agents gathered in the E. Barrett Prettyman U.S. Courthouse's ceremonial courtroom that Barcella's "example of integrity and achievement - and of a life lived well and fully - will continue to inspire our work."

Other graduates of the Washington U.S. attorney's office in the 1970s include U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman of the District, who presided over the 5 p.m. service for Barcella; Royce C. Lamberth, chief judge of the U.S. District Court for D.C.; Earl J. Silbert, the initial Watergate prosecutor and former president of the American Trial Lawyers College; Enron defense lawyer Carl S. Rauh; and Madigan, who defended the former head of KPMG's tax practice.

Other stars who served under former District U.S. attorneys Thomas A. Flannery and Silbert include Clinton impeachment counsel Robert S. Bennett and veteran trial attorney Thomas C. Green, who represented clients in the Whitewater, Iran-contra and Keating Five scandals.

"In that period of time, the decade of the 1970s, when there was an extraordinarily talented group of assistant U.S. attorneys, Larry was certainly one very high in that remarkable group itself," Silbert, an unofficial godfather to the group, said in an interview.

Rauh described Barcella's skills as a trial attorney and investigator as a blend of caginess and empathy that won over police detectives and jurors alike. "He had a very special ability to bond with the investigators and the agents and other agencies," Rauh said.

In his best-known case, Barcella pursued former CIA operative Edwin P. Wilson, who funneled arms to Libya's Moammar Gaddafi. In 1982, Barcella staged a covert business deal that was actually a sting operation and lured Wilson into flying from Libya to the Dominican Republic. There, Wilson was arrested and extradited to the United States, where he was tried and convicted.

Although Barcella received death threats because of the Wilson and Letelier cases, he maintained an interest in defending clients against authoritarian regimes that lack an independent judiciary and free press, said friend Jennefer Hirshberg, a public relations expert who worked with Barcella.

A son of a former executive and Washington bureau chief of United Press International, Barcella was comfortable with journalists and became an indispensable guide and public interpreter of the rarefied realm of corporate criminal defense work.

Barcella would have loved the court adjourning in his memory, an honor extended only once every few years for members of the Washington bar, said Lawrence H. Wechsler, who, with law partner Henry F. Schuelke III, was a close friend of Barcella's dating to their days as young prosecutors.

"He told us he didn't want to have the usual funeral," Wechsler said. "What he really wanted was more him, which was a party" - namely, a reception at Old Ebbitt Grill.

Friedman recalled being at Nationals Park last June when pitching phenom Stephen Strasburg made his first start and being surprised to receive a text message from Barcella, who spotted him from the stands. Madigan had obtained tickets, a car and a driver so Barcella, then very ill and nearly homebound, could watch the game.

"Larry just never stoppede-mailing people and being a player as long as he could," Friedman said in an interview.

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