Md. court won't let parolee be lawyer Life parole effectively bars man convicted of killing policewoman

January 07, 1997|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

John C. Dortch is a decorated Vietnam veteran, a law school graduate and a convicted murderer. He will not be a lawyer in Maryland, the state's highest court has ruled.

Dortch, 51, was denied admission to the Maryland bar yesterday when the Court of Appeals said he cannot practice law while on parole for his role in the 1974 slaying of a police officer. Dortch's parole is for life.

"A person on parole is still serving a prison sentence, albeit, beyond the prison walls," Judge Howard S. Chasanow wrote in a 15-page ruling. "We will not even entertain an application to admit a person to the practice of law when that person is still directly or indirectly serving a prison sentence."

The court said that it would be "premature" to consider his application until he is released from parole because he is technically serving a sentence for an offense that would mean disbarment.

Gaining release is considered a slim possibility. "I've never seen it happen," said David Hanson, Dortch's supervising parole officer.

Dortch did not return repeated phone calls yesterday.

But his lawyer said that he will petition the U.S. Parole Commission for his release. "Mr. Dortch is asking a lot from the court, and he knew all along that he had a long road ahead of him," said Daniel Katz of the 5-2 decision.

Dortch, who is working as clerk for a law school friend in South Charleston, W.Va., pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the attempted armed robbery of a Washington savings and loan in which Officer Gail Cobb was slain.

Dortch was paroled in 1990 from a sentence of 15 years to life, meaning that his supervision is to run for the rest of his life, said Hanson, a 12-year parole officer in Charleston, W.Va.

The only way for Dortch to end his parole would be a presidential pardon or for the three-member Parole Commission to issue a special release, which is extremely rare, Hanson said.

Advocates for police groups and the slain officer's father expressed relief at the court's decision.

"If this guy's never admitted to the bar, it would be one of my fondest dreams," said Clinton Cobb, the victim's 68-year-old father.

Cobb said he continued to hope that the appellate courts in West Virginia and Washington, where Dortch also has applied for a law license, would rule the same way.

Decisions in both those jurisdictions are pending.

"It sure makes me feel like there's some justice in this world," said Ronald L. Robertson, chairman of the Fraternal Order of Police for the Washington Metropolitan Police.

Suzie Sawyer, executive director of the Missouri-based Concerns of Police Survivors, said Dortch's law license applications would continue to be closely watched throughout the country.

"It's a great day for law enforcement," she said of the court ruling. "It's made my day."

The majority opinion said Dortch was a model prisoner who had an impressive list of law school professors, police officers and lawyers testify on his behalf before a Court of Appeals' character committee that recommended his admission, 6-1.

"The testimony of these witnesses was that Dortch is trustworthy, responsible, hard-working and deeply caring," Chasanow wrote in yesterday's decision.

But in a concurring opinion, Judge Irma S. Raker was less sympathetic. She noted that Dortch would not be allowed to vote, serve on a jury or hold elective office in Maryland.

She said that Dortch should probably not be admitted at all to the bar, and that the court should not hold out any false hopes.

"The public's interest is not served by the admission of a convicted murderer, a person who has demonstrated the most profound disregard for the law and for human life," she wrote in a nine-page opinion. She was joined by Judge Lawrence F. Rodowsky.

A native of Beaufort, S.C., Dortch had graduated from Howard University, served as a lieutenant in Vietnam and had been an insurance salesman and securities dealer when he decided to stem a series of business losses by robbing the Eastern Liberty Federal Savings and Loan, just eight blocks from the White House.

The robbery was aborted after police were tipped off and chased Dortch from the scene. But Cobb, a 24-year-old police officer writing a ticket a few blocks away, was shot and killed by an accomplice while fleeing.

Cobb was a single mother, raising a 4-year-old son at the time she was killed. The son, Damon Cobb, 26, is serving a life term at Maryland's tightest security prison for first-degree murder. He was convicted in the 1992 retribution slaying of an acquaintance, who he believed had burglarized a friend's home in Prince George's County.

In a recent interview, Cobb said that he thought of his mother every day and that he was confident he would win a new trial and prove his innocence. He said his first trip when he is released from prison would be to visit his mother's grave.

"It's unbelievable to me that they'd even think to let this guy practice law," Cobb said.

Pub Date: 1/07/97

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