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.
They say Dortch's robbery plans not only ended their daughter's life, but shattered theirs as well.
"It's something you never forget. You never get over it," Clinton Cobb said.
The Cobbs keep a glass curio cabinet in the living room of their Northeast Washington home that encases the boots their daughter was wearing on the day she was killed. It also has her badge, a photo of her in uniform, a condolence letter from President Gerald R. Ford and a 45 rpm record of her favorite song "Tell Her Love Has Felt the Need."
Cobb was a single parent, 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 in a 1992 slaying in Prince George's County.
The Cobbs are convinced that his mother's death played a major part in his making bad decisions throughout his life and put him where he is.
The Cobbs, who learned of Dortch's plans from the press, say they have been shut out of his application process. They also are mystified as to why a character committee of lawyers appointed by the State Board of Law Examiners voted 6-1 to recommend Dortch's admission.
"After what he did, how could the legal community embrace him as one of their own?" said Clinton Cobb, a retired correctional officer.
Dortch would not discuss his reasons for planning the robbery.
According to 1975 newspaper accounts of Dortch's sentencing, he intended to use the cash from the robbery to finance a militant black organization known as the New Nation, a self-described "black Mafia" that would fund black businesses.
Dortch told the Board of Law Examiners' character committee that he was trying to start an investment firm that would cater to black clients and that at the time, he was angry at the country and at financial institutions for refusing to loan him the $50,000 he needed.
His late older brother, William Russell Dortch, served as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam and had recently suffered a stroke. Dortch said he believed that because he is an African American, his Vietnam service and that of his brother were being overlooked in his efforts to secure the loan.
"We've always been committed to the service of our country and here we are feeling as though, you know, we still aren't being fully accepted," he said, according to a transcript of his testimony before the character committee.
Not used to failing
Dortch also told the committee in the closed-door interview Jan. 4 that it was the first time in his life that he had failed, and he wasn't used to it.
"I had never done anything like that before. And I honestly didn't think through all of the potential possibilities that could have happened," he told the committee.
In a brief telephone interview, Dortch would say only that being a lawyer has been a life-long dream and that he intended to enter law school after graduating in 1968 from Howard University, where he was an ROTC cadet. But he volunteered for Vietnam after graduation.
"I decided to go over there to help the kids who were over there and who didn't have any choice about being over there," he said.
He said that he would like to one day to set up an office in Silver Spring and work with juvenile offenders.
"I have a real burning for the youth, and I think I interact well with youthful delinquents," he told the committee.
Pub Date: 11/12/96