In most courthouses in Virginia, a freshly arrested person does not get to see a lawyer before their first court hearing. Why is it different in Alexandria?
“Me,” said Douglas, who founded the city’s public defender’s office in 1987 and retired Thursday. “It’s kind of nice to have people know what they’re doing when they go in front of a judge” with “a lawyer who’s not a bump on a log.”
That was what Douglas envisioned when she applied for the job decades ago, grilled by an all-male panel and viewed skeptically by some judges: an office that fights and does it well. Sharp and warm, she gave a rare interview from her now-nearly-bare office, decorated only with a taped-up quote from Robert F. Kennedy and a mug reassuring visitors, “We’re real lawyers.”
“Melinda is a trailblazer who has paved the way for young female attorneys to follow in her footsteps,” said Joni Robin, who worked for Douglas for the first nine years of her career. “The Alexandria Public Defender’s Office is a special place.”
In an era of criminal justice reform focused on electing liberal prosecutors, Douglas stayed committed to her role on the other side of the courtroom. She is proud that only one of the many successful lawyers who have passed through her office went on to become a prosecutor. When she teaches law students, she does not bring in any prosecutors as guest speakers.
“You have what I consider the secular offices, where the office hires people to be good trial lawyers,” Douglas said. “You find people defending one day and prosecuting the next. And then you have another type of public defender office, which is the true-believer office, where all the people are united around a sense of mission. They want to do something to create social change.”
She praised Alexandria’s judges and commonwealth’s attorney as open to incarceration alternatives. But for her, “I defend: It’s what I do, it’s who I am,” she said. “There needs to be somebody who is not compromised. . . . Without that, your system lacks any integrity. ”
Only six months into the job, she defended a man who killed a prominent local physician in a capital murder case; he was given a life sentence. In the 1980s and 1990s, her office dealt with police “jump-outs” that netted dozens of drug defendants at a time and harsh sentences from juries outraged by the crack epidemic.
She says she expects her successor, Paul Pepper, “to take it further than I did,” particularly in advocating for rehabilitation programs for defendants with mental health problems.
Douglas, who started the office when she was in her 30s, briefly defended in private practice, but she hated the way money infected the relationship with her clients, she said. If they gave you a check that bounced while you were on vacation, that was bad. If they offered to pay you with the rings on their fingers, that was worse.
As a public defender, she could focus on the work. And when she walks around the city, she sees people who remember her and thank her for helping them and their relatives.
A few years ago, she recalls, a trash collector called out her name and asked if she was retiring. She reassured him she wasn’t. But now, she decided, it’s time. She plans to volunteer and spend more time at scent-hunting competitions with her German shepherd, Jaeger — a former human-remains detector.
“I wanted to leave while I was still on my game,” Douglas said. “When I took the job, I said I don’t want to be here past when I should be here, because the job demands a lot, and all the people that are involved deserve a lot.”