W.Va. court denies man convicted of murder permission to practice law


West Virginia doesn't want a convicted murderer practicing law in its courts anymore than Maryland does.

The West Virginia Supreme Court voted 4-0 yesterday against John C. Dortch's application to practice law there. Maryland's highest court ruled similarly in January.

Dortch pleaded guilty to second-degree murder for planning a 1974 botched bank robbery in which an accomplice killed a Washington, D.C., police officer. He served 15 years before he was paroled in 1990 and admitted to District of Columbia Law School.

"Though Mr. Dortch may have demonstrated that he has been rehabilitated, we believe the horrendous crime of which he was the prime conspirator outweighs his present good deeds," Justice Thomas E. McHugh wrote.

A model prisoner, since his release, Dortch has joined a Washington church and worked with youth groups and was an exemplary law student.

A law school classmate had hired Dortch as a law clerk for a West Virginia firm. Dortch said yesterday he had not seen the court's 27-page ruling and could not comment in detail on it. But he acknowledged that the decision has forced him to put his life on hold.

"I'll survive, that's all I can say," he said.

Dortch said that he may file suit in federal court to try to reverse the decision or wait a few years and reapply for admission.

The victim's father and advocates for police groups praised the decision. "I'm glad somebody's thinking right on this issue," said Clinton Cobb, the retired correctional officer whose daughter, Officer Gail Cobb, was killed in the robbery attempt.

"This just makes my day," said Suzie Sawyer, executive director of the Missouri-based Concerns of Police Survivors.

Sawyer said the Dortch case inspired her group to start a national petition drive and letter-writing campaign to reverse policies in 44 states that allow convicted felons to become lawyers.

Pub Date: 4/15/97

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