Ronald A. Goodbread, a former D.C. Superior Court magistrate judge, defense counsel and public defender who was known for illustrating points of law in the language and colloquialisms of his childhood in the Deep South, died Feb. 15 at a hospice center in Winchester, Va. He was 73.
The cause was diabetes and cancer, said his wife, Kay Willett.
A former college professor, Mr. Goodbread was a magistrate judge for 12 years and a defense lawyer for more than 15 years.
As a magistrate judge he once sent a 14-year-old to juvenile detention for threatening to kill his grandmother. He scolded the thief of a car belonging to visitors from Canada for sullying Washington’s reputation as a tourist attraction.
To a 16-year-old accused of stealing a taxicab and then ramming it into a police car, crushing the legs and hips of a police officer, he delivered a lecture from the bench in 1995 on the criminality of the cowbird, which lays its eggs in the nests of tiny starlings, leaving the starling mothers to incubate them. When the cowbirds hatch, they push the baby starlings from the nests, and the mother starling is left to raise the young cowbirds.
The defendant before him was no better than a cowbird, the judge said, because he “not only takes the property of others, he destroys the lives of others.”
A youth arrested on heroin charges at a Grateful Dead concert in Washington faced a tongue-lashing as “nothing but a roving black hole of crime and perdition.”
Other defendants, The Washington Post reported in 1995, might get a lecture on the “suffocating proclivities of kudzu,” a Southern weed that tends to smother other vegetation. His courtroom, reporter Nancy Lewis wrote, was “entertaining, even enlightening,” but his comment from the bench “does little to make hearings shorter.”
Ronald Alton Goodbread was born in New York City on Jan. 31, 1946, and spent his early years in New Orleans. According to his wife, Mr. Goodbread’s father was an itinerant carpenter who was inconsistently employed and frequently behind in the rent, and the family moved frequently and the children often slept on the floor.
When he was 5, the future jurist was deposited with an aunt in Jackson, Miss., where he grew up. He graduated in 1966 from Millsaps College in Jackson and received a master’s degree from the University of North Carolina in 1968. He did predoctoral studies at the University of Georgia and taught history for 10 years in North Carolina and Georgia.
In 1979 he earned a law degree at Samford University in Homewood, Ala., and, shortly thereafter, pursued a legal career in Washington. He defended men and women accused of white-collar crime and street crime, both in private practice and as a public defender, and he was an early advocate for DNA testing in criminal cases.
“People at Washington cocktail parties are always asking me how I can defend a man who raped a 6-year-old,” Mr. Goodbread told The Post. “But we all have our roles.”
In 1995, he was appointed a Superior Court commissioner — the post was later upgraded to magistrate judge, and he served there until retiring in 2007. The work includes preliminary procedures in felony cases, family and small claims court, motions and trials in civil litigation.
Mr. Goodbread returned to a private legal practice for several years after retiring from the bench. He also was worked on a book about Reconstruction in the post-Civil War South.
His marriages to Nancy Lee Cate, Martha Mullen and Jeannette Smith ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of seven years, Kay Willett of Leesburg, Va.; two women he considered his daughters, Amy Schear and Mary Taylor, both of Washington; and three grandchildren.