Shortly before 1 a.m. Thursday, as attorneys and spectators waited in the court house hallways while a jury debated the fate of Alexandria Commonwealth's Attorney William L. Cowhig, a tense defense lawyer threw a righthand punch to the chest of special prosecutor Edward J. White.
"Therehs been too much turmoil in this case, I don't think I can take it anymore," White said after he had recovered, declining to press charges against the lawyer.
The turmoil of the trial, in which Cowhig was acquitted by the jury Thursday afternoon after more than 13 hours of deliberations, has left a mark on the city that may not go away even if Cowhig also is acquitted of two felony gambling charges still facing him.
"The whole (trial) procedure didn't improve the image of law and order in Alexandria," said City Council member Donald C. Casey, a Democrat. "But as a lawyer I resent it when you turn the courtroom into a circus."
The controversy surrounding Cowhig, which began months before his indictment Aug. 3, has created tensions in city government and political circles that will not be resolved fo months.
Cowhig, 53 , who was first elected as Alexandria's chief prosecutor in 1973, is awaiting trial on two unrelated charges that he operated illegal gambling operations in the form of bingo last year. The first trial is scheduled to start Jan. 22, and the second March 5.
"I'm glad he was acquitted," said Alexandria Mayor Frank E. Mann Thursday, "But the victory will do nothing to compensate him and his family for the agony they have suffered at the hands of the press."
Mann, who is running for reelection in next spring's mayoralty contest, gave an emotional defense of Cowhig, a popular vote-getter, after Cowhig's indictment. Former Mayor Chalres E. Beatley, the only announced challenger to Mann, has criticized Mann for his support of Cowhig and is expected to make that an issue in the race.
Some city officials also express concern that even if Cowhig is acquitted of the remaining charges, his ability to work with other branches of government may be in jeopardy.
"I think it's going to be very difficult for Billy to be effective, in view of the evidence that came out at the trial," said one official who has been critical of Cowhig in the past. "The acquittal is one thing, but now we must look at a question of his judgment. How can the police work effectively with him when the police department later investigated him."
Police Chief Charles T. Strobel, who called for appointment of a special prosecutor to probe alleged bingo infractions last April, was noncommittal yesterday. "The police department did its job, which we will continue to do," he said.
Cowhig has stepped aside temporarily from the prosecutor's job pending outcome of the charges. John Kolch is acting commonwealth's attorney.
White said yesterday that he may ask for "additional legal assistance" for the next two trials. "The way criminal law is practiced today, it's a papering contest. I'm going to need some help," he said.
"There was just a total absence of a smoking gun in this case," White said yesterday. "If you insist on that, you're insisting on a very high standard that most cases can't reach."
White said he is preparing for a two-week vacation.
"The climate of hate generated by the trial tore me up completely. I've never been subjected to this before, and I'm not preparted to handle it. The other day I received a Christmas card with a picture of a German shepherd (dog) on it, and the word, 'mother,' written in."
White repeated a criticism he made during the trial that he had received little cooperation from the FBI, although he said he was unsure of the effect that had on Cowhig's acquittal. "I thought this case should go to trial, and I thought I was right in the way it was handled. I don't think I would do anything too differently."