H. Carl Moultrie I, 71, the chief judge of D.C. Superior Court, a jurist who put more faith in stiff sentences than in rehabilitation and a widely respected civil rights and community leader who was president of the D.C. branch of the NAACP during the 1968 riots, died of cancer yesterday at the Washington Hospital Center.
Judge Moultrie announced to his colleagues in February that he had inoperable cancer, but that he had no intention of giving up his work. His last day in his chambers was March 25.
Judge George H. Goodrich, the court's senior acting judge, was named acting chief judge until a permanent replacement can be selected.
A former newspaperman, social worker and housing official in Wilmington, N.C., Moultrie came to Washington in 1948 as the national executive secretary of Omega Psi Phi, a noted black fraternity. He studied law at Georgetown University at night and in 1956, at the age of 41, received his degree. While continuing his work with the fraternity -- he remained executive secretary until 1972 -- he joined the law firm of Cobb, Howard, Hayes & Windsor.
As a lawyer he distinguished himself by filing the first police brutality suit against the D.C. police department. As was the case with most black lawyers at that time, much of his courtroom work was for little or no pay.
He also immersed himself in civic activities and over the years held positions of increasing responsibility in areas ranging from health and welfare to the provision of legal services. He became a mentor to a generation of younger black leaders, including Marion Barry, Walter E. Fauntroy and Jesse Jackson, who stayed at Moultrie's house on the eve of the 1963 March on Washington that was led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
In 1964, Moultrie became president of the local NAACP and he held that post in 1968 when rioters torched and looted parts of the city in the aftermath of King's assassination. With then-Mayor Walter E. Washington he rode through the riot areas trying to calm the situation. Later that year, he played an important behind-the-scenes role, helping to feed the participants in the Poor Peoples March who camped on the Mall.
In 1972, President Nixon appointed him a judge of D.C. Superior Court. The court had come into being only in the previous year, replacing the D.C. Court of General Sessions. Its purpose was to serve the citizens of the District of Columbia as a state court, taking over from the U.S. District Court such functions as the trial of felonies and major civil cases, the probation of wills and other functions.
Judge Moultrie was part of this process. In 1978, he succeeded Harold H. Greene as chief judge when Greene was made a judge of the U.S. District Court.
A pressing priority was the court's backlog of cases. As a way to alleviate it, Moultrie initiated several mediation programs that serve as alternatives to full trials. He expanded the number of hearing commissioners from one to 10. These officials handle preliminary hearings, arraignments and other matters that used to fall to judges.
Moreover, Moultrie is credited with furthering opportunities in the court system for minorities, women and younger lawyers and judges. His tall, lean figure with a puff of white hair and wire-rimmed glasses often could be seen in the hallways and on the escalators, talking to attorneys and court officials.
In the process, the judge became for many the embodiment of Superior Court. Most judges began their work yesterday by asking for a moment of silence, and the courthouse closed early out of respect for him.
Apart from his administrative duties, Moultrie had a full trial calendar. He presided over some of the city's most celebrated cases, including that of Bernard Welch, the murderer of Washington cardiologist Michael Halberstam.
It was as a trial judge that he gave heavy sentences. In an interview in February, he said the young defendants appearing before him seemed to be hardened criminals with scant prospect of rehabiltiation. He almost always gave them maximum sentences.
"He's just a criminal," he said of young offenders. "He's just damn mean. They don't give a damn. Your life to them is nothing. I would like to see the death penalty. I would use it."
For defendants over 30, however, Judge Moultrie had greater hopes of rehabilitation and was less severe. "Theirs is a one-time act," he said.
In a contoversial decision in 1985, he sentenced Edward Strothers, 54, to 365 days of weekends in prison after Strothers pleaded guilty to murdering his girlfriend while her grandmother looked on. He also ordered Strothers to make payments to the victim's 6-year-old daughter and to take out a life insurance policy in her behalf.
"I had only one thing in mind: to see what could be done for the decedent's daughter," Moultrie said in an interview. "I have no qualms about putting people in jail. In fact, it's the easiest, least controversial thing to do. I could have put this man in prison and let the citizens take care of him for the rest of his life. But what good would that do the child?"
Mayor Barry yesterday ordered flags on city buildings flown at half staff in honor of Moultrie. He released a statement that said: "His legal acumen, his judicial temper and his long and successful efforts as the leader of our Superior Court will forever remain a monument to this great lawyer, jurist and public servant."
U.S. Attorney Joseph diGenova said Moultrie reminded him of Socrates' idea of a good judge: "To hear courteously, to answer wisely, to consider soberly, and to decide impartially."
Moultrie was born in Charleston, S.C., April 3, 1915. His parents were the Rev. William Edward and Annie Moultrie. For reasons lost in time, his childhood nickname was "Dick Tracy." He graduated from Lincoln University in 1936 and also studied theology there. He received a master's degree at New York University in 1952.
After Lincoln, he moved to Wilmington, N.C., where he was a newspaper reporter and worked at a boy's club. From 1941 to 1949, he headed the Hillcrest Housing Project in Wilmington. He then moved to Washington to work for Omega Psi Phi.
A resident of Washington, he is survived by his wife, Sara; a son, Dr. H. Carl Moultrie II of Valparaiso, Ind., and two grandchildren.
In the interview he gave in February, Moultrie said: "There are so many things that still need to be done. And you think, you think in terms that it could be a space of months that you are no longer involved. That's very frightening, very frightening. But you learn to live with it."