An article in The Washington Post on May 11 about a drug case in Cumberland County, Va., should have said two lawyers reresenting defendants in the case raised the possibility of a $1 million donation to the county and cited North Carolina and Florida cases in which drug defendants had received suspended sentences in exchange for similar donations. The lawyers did not specifically request that drug charges against their clients be dismissed.
One Friday afternoon in late 1976 former Virginia Representative Watkins M. Abbitt stood in a country courtroom and delivered a glowing testimonial on behalf on his lifelong friend, John R. (Jack) Snoddy Jr.
Snoddy, a former prosecutor, Democratic Party functionary and man of "character, integrity, abilities and contributions," according to Abbitt, was enjoying his first day as a circuit court judge, surrounded by friends at the swearing-in.
Three years later, lawyer Abbitt, a legend in the conservative Democratic politics of Southside Virginia and a longtime Byrd organization lieutenant, was back with Jack Snoddy in the little one-room courthouse here. This time Abbitt was representing a drug defendent arrested in a raid that netted 13,400 pounds of marijuana and suitcases stuffed with $1.7 million in cash.
"You have been represented by excellent attorneys," Judge Snoddy told Abbitt's client admiringly.
Four drug smugglers caught by police hired Abbitt to help handle their cases. Before justice ran its course, two were freed from prison by Snoddy. One served only six months of a 10-year sentence, the other 13 months of a 12-year term -- early releases that Virginia Attorney General J. Marshall Coleman has branded a "select system of justice."
Here in the flat and forest land 100 miles south of Washington, no one normally thinks twice about friendship as thick as peanut soup between a lawyer and the judge hearing his case. "I'm not any closer to Snoddy than any other lawyer," says the veteran lawyer from Appomattox.
But things have gotten a lot less casual since Attorney General Coleman accused Snoddy of secretly and illegally freeing Abbitt's two clients, plus a third convicted smuggler, from prison.
Snoddy cited extenuating circumstances -- all three reportedly were model prisoners -- but reaction to the releases was sharp and swift, reaching to the Virginia General Assembly, Congress and into the state's intense governor's race, where Coleman is certain to be the Republican nominee.
Critics of Abbitt -- aware that Snoddy served as an elected prosecutor for 19 years in neighboring Buckingham County during the period of Abbitt's greatest political influence -- cried courthouse politics of the kind practiced for decades in rural Virginia.
"It's 'establishment justice' and it's been going on for as long as anybody can remember," said Democratic political strategist Paul Goldman of Virginia Beach. "If it quacks like a duck and walks like a duck, chances are it's a duck."
Amid charges of political opportunism from some Democrats, Coleman filed a petition with the state Supreme Court, asking that Snoddy's decision be overturned on grounds that he exceeded his authority.
A few days later Coleman attacked Snoddy's decision publicly, alleging that it allowed the three men to be freed after publicity surrounding the men's trials had died down.
Coleman's commets and petition, now pending before the court, in turn have touched off heated debate around the state about the legality of Snoddy's action and the propriety of Coleman's statements.
Last week Coleman, in a meeting he says was coincidental, joined Florida Attorney General Jim Smith in a White House session with presidential adviser Ed. Meese to discuss increased East Coast drug smuggling. The Cumberland case was mentioned in the context of an appeal for more federal cooperation in wiping out the drug trade, says Coleman, who acknowledged that the meeting was set up with the help of his campaign media aide, Douglas Bailey.
To protect his flanks the 60-year-old judge, a lifetime Democrat, hired Anthony Troy, a Richmond lawyer and former Democratic state attorney general, to represent him before the Virginia Supreme Court when Coleman's petition comes up.
Meanwhile, Rep. Robin Beard, a Tennessee Republican and member of a House Select Committee on Drugs, announced he was outraged that major drug dealers were being set free in Virginia. Beard called for congressional hearings on the case and said he hoped to have Judge Snoddy "Invited" to appear.
Dismayed by the furor and attacks on Snoddy's reputation, lawyers in the judge's 10th Judicial Circuit circled hte wagons. The Southside Bar Association -- after a presentation by Abbitt, who said he was speaking for the judge -- passed a resolution on April 27 supporting Snoddy's "integrity and judicial discretion."
The criticism left many feeling misunderstood. "You have to know how it works here." says James Ghee, a lawyer in nearby Farmville, where Snoddy also presides. "Formality isn't stressed that much." Still, Snoddy refuses to talk to the press and the circuit court clerk keeps a growing list of reporters and lawyers who come to read "the drug file."
The 1978 case was controversial from the beginning. When the defendants, through their lawyers, offered to donate $1 million to impoverished Cumberland County if the charges were dismissed, county prosecutor James P. Baber decided to ask for outside help.
Fairfax County chief prosecutor Robert F. Horan Jr., one of the state's most able prosecutors, was called in to prosecute the case. He rejected the $1 million offer instantly. "It smacked too much of a payoff," he said.
Despite the big-money overtones, the legal process was remarkable routine as the case moved through the court. All five defendants pleaded guilty. Douglas Bogue, 29, the alleged ringleader, was sentenced by Snoddy to 25 years in prison.He is still in prison.
A second Florida man, William H. Syfrett, 31, received 20 years with five suspended for his involvement in the smuggling operation. Three others, Larry Sherman, 31, of Durham, N.C., David S. Taylor, 29, of Colorado, and Daniel Curry Crowley, 35, of Florida, played lesser roles and were treated more leniently.
Sherman and Taylor were sentenced to 10 years each. Crowley was given 20 years with eight suspended on the marijuana charge, and five years on a separate count because police found LSD in his possession when he was arrested.
The sentences appeared to be stiff, in keeping with the conservative reputation of rural Virginia courts, and a member of Syfrett's defense team struck that note in pleading with Snoddy for a light sentence.
"Whatever the deterrent effect," said prominent Richmond lawyer Murray Janus, "It has already been achieved when the newspaper headline said 'Bogue Gets 20 Years.'. . . That's the cry out for this court to everyone in Cumberland County and Richmond and Florida -- don't be doing this in Cumberland County or even anywhere in the Commonwealth of Virginia."
But, the judge's critics allege, his real message has proved to be more complex.
A Richmond newspaper disclosed last month that Snoddy, acting on motions filed by the defense immediately after sentencing, had freed Sherman, Taylor and Crowley from the state prison system. Taylor had served only 5 1/2 months; Sherman, 6 months; and Crowley, 13 months. Defense motions for the early release of Bogue and Syfrett are still before the judge.
Abbitt's foes say that attorneys hired by four of the five defendants -- well award of Abbitt's staute in Southside and his political ties to Snoddy -- each has asked Abbitt to participate in the defense although he had never handled a drug case in his life.
"If I had a case in Fairfax where I've never set foot, I'd want a lawyer with some weight, too," Cumberland prosecutor Baber says with a smile.
Abbitt, the former 12-term congressman and former state Democratic Party chairman, denies any impropriety. "I don't think I had any influence," he says. "Snoddy would have done what he did anyway."
Abbitt also denies he recieved an extraordinary fee for his part in the four separate cases. "My fee was very, very modest," he says. "I'm ashamed to say what my fee was."
Abbitt does say he believes the criticism of Snoddy has been most unfair. "I'ts been tremendously rough. It's uncalled for and vindictive," he says.
While Snoddy has remained silent, the defense lawyers, including Abbit, stressed that their clients had had no prior convictions and had been model prisoners. And, they insisted, there were additional factors in their favor.
Sherman's wife had an emotional breakdown while her husband was incarcerated. His father suffered a heart attack. Crowley was credited by prison officials with reporting an unlocked gate that might have permitted an escape. Taylor, the only defendant not represented by Abbitt, had played a minor role in the smuggling operation and deserved to be set free, his lawyer argued.
The legality of Snoddy's action also is defended by lawyer's here and in Richmond who say judicial orders freeing prisoners have been common practice in Southside Virginia and condoned by earlier attorney's general in Virginia for years.
The judge whom Snoddy replaced here -- George Abbitt, brother of the former congressman -- himself granted early release to two men convicted in separate robbery cases under similar circumstances in recent years.
"They were doing it before I started to practice law here [in 1961]," says prosecutor Baber. "I never even looked up the law on it."
But Coleman argues that by statute, state judges have only 21 days after sentening in which to modify or suspend all or part of the sentence. Once convicted defendants have entered the state prison system and the 21-day period has passed, Coleman contends, prisoners are under the jurisdiction of state prison officials and the parole board, not state judges.
What Snoddy did -- correctly, many lawyers argue -- was to take defense motions to modify the sentences under advisement. Whether such an action means a final sentencing order was never handed down is the question before the Virginia Supreme Courty.