Ex-inmate's bid to be lawyer angers slain officer's family Dortch planned fatal robbery

friends call new life a model

November 12, 1996|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

From the beginning, John Dortch excelled.

The youngest of four children born to a Baptist minister, he was a star athlete in high school, an honor student in college, a decorated Vietnam veteran, an award-winning insurance salesman and president of the student government at his law school.

"That boy was always as smart as a whip," said Julia Dortch, his 71-year-old mother.

But in 1974, Dortch planned a bank robbery that ended in the death of a Washington, D.C., police officer and a 15-year prison ++ sentence for him.

Now, Dortch is asking the Maryland Court of Appeals to decide whether that crime should prevent him from becoming a lawyer.

The court heard arguments in the case last month. Dortch, who (( is working as a law clerk for a law school friend in Charleston, W.Va., also has applied for law licenses in that state and the District of Columbia.

The West Virginia decision is expected this month. District officials are likely to wait until Maryland decides.

Dortch's friends point out that the 51-year-old father of two was not the trigger man in the shooting Sept. 20, 1974, that killed Officer Gail Cobb. They say that he has expressed sorrow at the officer's death and has consistently demonstrated an integrity that would make him an asset to the legal profession.

"He's an extraordinary man," said William L. Robinson, a civil rights lawyer and the dean of the District of Columbia School of Law, where Dortch earned his law degree in 1994 after his release from prison.

But others argue that there is no way anyone convicted of such a crime should be permitted to join the legal fraternity.

"It's like Jeffrey Dahmer being allowed to practice medicine," said Denise Cobb Jackson, the Washington school teacher whose sister was slain in the robbery attempt. She was referring to the Milwaukee mass murderer who mutilated his victims' bodies.

Dortch and seven others plotted the robbery of the Eastern Liberty Federal Savings and Loan at 21st and L streets. But police were tipped off to the robbery. When detectives approached Dortch's Pontiac Grand Prix in front of the bank and asked him and his 25-year-old accomplice, William Bryant, for identification, they ran off.

Cobb, 24, six months out of the police academy, was writing a traffic ticket a few blocks away when someone told her that a suspicious person had just run into a nearby parking garage. It was Bryant, who had rushed into the garage wash room to change from the clothes he was wearing for the robbery.

When Cobb caught up with him, he turned his back on her, pulled a gun and fired a single shot, which passed through her forearm and penetrated her heart.

"She never even got a chance to pull out her service weapon," said Ronald L. Robertson, chairman of the Fraternal Order of Police for the Washington Metropolitan Police.

Making amends, friends say

Dortch, who turned himself in the next day, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 15 years to life July 30, 1975. Since then, he has done everything possible to make amends, becoming a model prisoner, tutoring youths, applying to law school, attending church and never denying his past, according to those who know him.

"I see in him a sincerity and a genuine desire to do good with his life," said the Rev. Dennis Wiley, pastor of the Covenant Baptist Church in Washington, where Dortch worked as business manager when he was released from prison in August 1990. "As awful as the crime was, as a Christian church, we have to believe in forgiveness."

Robinson said Dortch disclosed his past when he applied in 1990 to the D.C. Law School.

"He was a first-rate student leader," said Robinson, one of 14 people to recommend that the Court of Appeals approve Dortch's admission to the Maryland Bar.

Dortch's law school professors recalled how he stood out, particularly in the school's clinics, where students work with clients under a lawyer's supervision.

In the housing clinic, Dortch worked closely with a client with AIDS, bringing her balloons on her birthday and hot lunches on cold afternoons. In the juvenile clinic, he tutored a teen-ager on his own time, then followed up to make sure that the youth was progressing in school.

When someone painted a swastika on the door of the Jewish Student Government office in the fall of 1994, Dortch organized meetings among Jewish and black student leaders that calmed tensions at the campus.

"All of us felt that he must have been a different person at the

time, or that he was just operating back then under some sort of duress," said Louise Howells, who ran the school's housing clinic.

But the FOP and Cobb's family say Dortch is just manipulating the system. They wonder how he made it so far in the application process and have begun lobbying the appeals court to reject Dortch's application.

"Twenty-two years later, we are begging someone to remember Gail," Clinton and Gloria Cobb, the officer's parents, said last month in a letter to the court.

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