"He comes across as very credible because of the sincere way he approaches an issue," Von Schuch said.
"Craig is a rarity," said Steven Benjamin, a Richmond lawyer who has known Cooley for 25 years. He says Cooley is a role model -- someone who feels a responsibility to take court-appointed death-penalty cases.
Cooley said he felt he would be abandoning his principles if he said no when Roush called.
A former tennis pro, Cooley said that five years as a high school teacher taught him how to hold the attention of juries. A Harrisonburg native, he was inspired to enter law by the movie To Kill a Mockingbird. He returned to his alma mater, the University of Richmond, for a law degree.
He has received the state bar association's Harry L. Carrico Professionalism Award -- as has Fairfax County Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr., who is prosecuting Malvo.
Leonard R. Piotrowski, who now runs the Regional Capital Defender Office for Northern Virginia, enlisted Arif to help defend Bobby Lee Ramdass, accused in the killing of a store clerk in Fairfax County in 1992. Piotrowski remembered that Arif would look beyond the expected to get information.
"He was bright, he had different ideas," Piotrowski recalled.
Ramdass was executed in 2000.
More recently, Arif kept Sterling Fisher off death row. Fisher was charged with capital murder in the 1995 slaying of a gas station attendant. He was convicted of first-degree murder and is serving a life term.
Mark J. Yeager, another Fairfax County attorney who takes capital cases, described Arif as passionate in his defense of clients.
"He carries all the scars of all the former battles that he has fought," Yeager said, adding, "As the Spanish would say, he is simpatico, he is a genuine human being." He said Arif talks to jurors like he is talking at a family gathering, not much for histrionics or oratory, but with a common-sense way about him.
Alexandria attorney Marvin Miller, a past president of the Virginia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, described Arif as persistent, diligent and intense.
"You have to be intense when you take these cases," Arif said.
Arif, whose clients include court-appointed impoverished defendants, jokes that he never should have come to the phone when he was asked to take Malvo's case. But, he said, he feels personally and professionally obligated to accept such cases. "When I see Lee, I see my 18-year-old kid, I see anybody's 18-year-old kid. I know the screw-up I was when I was 17," Arif said.
He said he barely made it out of a Bronx high school, then drove a cab while waiting for the Vietnam-era draft call that didn't come.
"I stopped driving a cab when a guy put a gun to my head," he said. He worked his way through college, then went to law school at American University in Washington. He passed the Virginia bar in 1981 and worked for a nonprofit group, then for a law firm, and was on his own before embarking on his current law partnership in 1990.
"I watched Perry Mason," he said wryly. "I figured if his clients were innocent, mine would be."