Prominent criminal defense lawyer William B. Moffitt, a former president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers who built a reputation as a crusader for civil rights, died Friday. Moffitt, name partner at Moffitt & Brodnax, was 60.
Friends of the Alexandria, Va.-based attorney say Moffitt, a member of the D.C. and Virginia bars, battled pneumonia earlier this year and has struggled with kidney disease. He had been hospitalized for several days before his death.
Moffitt was the second black president of the NACDL and a former name partner at now-defunct Asbill Moffitt & Boss. “We shared many courtroom battles, and I greatly admired his legal mind and passion for criminal justice,” says Henry Asbill, a partner at Dewey & LeBoeuf. “Bill was irreverent to the core. With a barely hidden grin, he loved to tell folks, ‘Heaven doesn't want me and hell’s afraid I'll take over.’ He will be sorely missed.”
Barry Boss, managing partner in the D.C. office of Cozen O’Connor, fondly recalls watching Moffitt in action in a drug case in 1991. Moffitt, known for his booming voice and large physical presence, told Boss he was going to pick apart a government snitch.
“Watch what I do with him,” Moffitt told Boss, who was representing a codefendant. Moffitt grilled the witness, theatrically making check marks on a legal pad as he went from one point to the next. When Moffitt returned to the defense table, Boss looked over at the pad. “The only thing on it was check marks,” Boss recalls.
More recently Moffitt defended former University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida in a terrorism and conspiracy case. After a six-month trial, a jury acquitted Al-Arian on eight of the 18 charges and deadlocked on the others—a blow to the Justice Department. Al-Arian pleaded guilty in 2006 to a conspiracy charge.
But a contempt charge is pending against Al-Arian in federal court in Virginia, where George Washington University Law School Professor Jonathan Turley is representing the former professor. Turley had been working closely with Moffitt. “If lawyers had baseball cards, Bill Moffitt would be one of the most traded,” Turley says. “He was the guy who could come back from a big deficit and win the game and win the series.”
Friends say Moffitt, a New York native who got his law degree at American University’s Washington College of Law, never missed an opportunity to teach—from interns to young lawyers. Moffitt was on the faculty of the National Criminal Defense College in Macon, Ga. “If he had to do his life all over again, he’d still be a lawyer,” says Moffitt’s widow, Edna Lee Moffitt.
A memorial service is scheduled for Saturday, May 2, at Howard University Law School's Dunbarton Chapel, 2900 Van Ness Street N.W., Washington, D.C.