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Jane F. Barrett, a trial lawyer, state and federal prosecutor, white-collar defense counsel and legal educator, dies

Jane F. Barrett devoted her legal career to environmental issues.
Jane F. Barrett devoted her legal career to environmental issues. (Handout / HANDOUT)

Jane F. Barrett, a distinguished lawyer who during her four-decade career was a trial attorney, state and federal prosecutor, white-collar defense counsel and legal educator, died April 7 of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, in Virginia Beach, Virginia. The former Canton and Tolchester Beach resident was 68.

“Jane was what Assistant U.S. Attorney Barney Skolnik was to political corruption, as she was to environmental prosecution,” said U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett, who worked with both Mr. Skolnik and Ms. Barrett in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Baltimore.

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“She was fantastic. She was phenomenal. She really was one of the great environmental lawyers of our era, and no one did more to protect the Chesapeake Bay,” Judge Bennett said. “She was tenacious and smart when it came to environmental crimes. She put environmental law and prosecution on the map. She was a star and a magnificent lawyer and gained national status prosecuting environmental cases. I thought the world of her.”

“Jane was fearless,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Roann Nichols, who worked for years with Ms. Barrett in the U.S. Attorney’s Office. “She was tireless and committed to the Chesapeake Bay and for keeping and protecting it for citizens.

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“She was completely passionate about her work and was an extraordinary lawyer. I never tried a case with her and it’s a huge regret,” said Ms. Nichols, who was also a close friend. “I’ve had heard it said that she was the best trial partner and co-counsel one could ever have. She was just brilliant.”

Timothy B. Wheeler, who covered the environment for 25 years for The Baltimore Sun, and is now associate editor and senior writer for The Bay Journal in Annapolis, covered Ms. Barrett extensively.

“Jane was passionate and a hard charger when it came to environmental crime and enforcement when she was in the U.S. Attorney’s Office and won convictions,” Mr. Wheeler said. “She had a steel-trap mind and could cut through the red tape and technical stuff and lay a case out, and she brought the same passion to the University of Maryland Environmental Law Clinic when it came to regulatory issues and making them tougher.”

Jane France Barrett, daughter of Dr. Harley V. Barrett, professor of preventive medicine at the University of Maryland Medical School, and his wife, Lucille R. Barrett, a community leader and volunteer, was born in Monterey, California, and spent her early years in Oklahoma and Nebraska before coming with her family to Baltimore in 1965 and settling in Ellicott City.

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Ms. Barrett was a 1969 graduate of Archbishop Keough High School and earned a bachelor’s degree from what is now Loyola University Maryland and obtained her law degree in 1976 from the University of Maryland Law School.

She began her legal career as an attorney for the Environmental Protection Agency in 1976 in Washington.

“Fresh out of the University of Maryland Law School, she helped the fledgling EPA win one of its first criminal convictions — involving a major chemical manufacturer, FMC Corp., accused of dumping toxic chemicals in a West Virginia river and contaminating the drinking water of three cities downstream,” The Sun reported in 1997.

At the time, Robert Percival, who was teaching environmental law at the University of Maryland Law School and is now director of the environmental law program at the law school, told the newspaper, “She was tenacious. She brought some of the most important early cases that showed that the criminal provisions of the environmental laws had teeth.”

One of Ms. Barrett’s most significant cases came in 1989, the prosecution of three civilian managers of the Army’s chemical weapons research program at Aberdeen Proving Ground for illegally disposing of hazardous waste at the APG in Harford County, and underscoring the fact that the Defense Department considered itself exempt from federal environmental laws.

“It was the first time that [federal] senior executives had been charged,” Ms. Barrett told The Sun.

“If we don’t hold federal employees accountable, it’s very difficult to hold anyone accountable,” she said. “The fact we went after senior managers — and not the lower-level guys who did the spilling and dumping — sent shock waves through the military. It still does.”

In 1981, Ms. Barrett joined the Maryland Attorney General’s Office as an assistant attorney general heading the Hazardous Waste and Environmental Task Force. She held that position until 1986 when she began serving in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Baltimore, where she continued pursuing groundbreaking environmental crime prosecutions while serving as chief of environmental litigation.

Ms. Barrett was so focused on her work, that she worked weekends on her cases. “She never missed a beat when it came to issues and other things. She had it all,” Ms. Nichols said.

Ms. Barrett left the U. S. Attorney’s Office in 1998 and went into private practice working in environmental compliance and white-collar defense as a partner in Dyer, Ellis & Joseph in Washington, and then with Blank Rome LLP, also in Washington.

Ms. Barrett always kept a small figure of a barracuda in her office that had been given to her by an FBI agent, and that became her nickname.

“The ‘Barracuda’ has bitten her last criminal,” Mr. Wheeler wrote in 1997 at the time she left the U.S. Attorney’s Office. “After 21 years of preying on polluters, poachers, con artists and wetlands despoilers, Jane F. Barrett leaves the U.S. attorney’s office in Baltimore today to swim to the other side."

In 2007, she was appointed as tenured faculty and director of the University of Maryland School of Law’s Environmental Law Clinic, a position she held until retiring in 2017.

In 2012, Ms. Barrett and the law clinic represented the Waterkeeper Alliance in a lawsuit against a family-owned chicken farm and industry giant Perdue that was fouling bay waters with chicken waste.

Federal Judge William M. Nickerson ruled against the Waterkeeper Alliance, explaining in his decision that the group had failed to produce sufficient evidence that the waste from the chicken farm was responsible for “alarmingly high” levels of bacteria in the bay. Ms. Barrett told The Sun that she “respectfully” disagreed with his decision.

“She had stood to some pretty intense pressure from individuals, including those in the governor’s office in the Perdue case,” Mr. Wheeler said in a telephone interview.

Ms. Barrett moved to Tolchester Beach in 2014, where she did pro bono legal work for the Chester River Association and was an active communicant of Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Parish in Chestertown.

After her diagnosis three years ago of ALS, she moved to Harbor’s Edge, an older adult community, in Norfolk, Virginia, to be near her son and grandchildren. In Norfolk, she was a communicant of the Basilica of St. Mary Catholic Community, and earlier when living in Baltimore, had been a parishioner of St. Ignatius Roman Catholic Church.

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She liked kayaking on the bay, rode her bike all through Europe, was a scuba diver and liked gardening.

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“She was a sportswoman and an outdoorswoman,’” said a sister, Barbara B. Foster of Chestertown.

When she received her diagnosis, Ms. Barrett assembled a bucket list of things she wanted to do, and along with Ms. Nichols took a bike trip through Cuba and visited the Galápagos Islands.

Knowing that she would lose the ability to speak because of ALS, Ms. Barrett recorded thousands of words and learned to use a computer-generated voice. “It sounded like her speaking,” her sister said.

She later mastered the Eyegaze speech machine, which allowed her eyes to type out text and messages.

“She remained cheerful and upbeat even as things grew more difficult in the final weeks of her life,” Ms. Foster said.

For the last several months of her life, her family rented a beach house in Virginia Beach where she could enjoy the water and beach as her life waned.

“Her death is so tragic because she was so extraordinary. This is so unfair and wrong on so many levels,” Ms. Nichols said. “She really had everything mentally until the end. She had courage, strength and grace. These things marked her life.”

Plans for a celebration-of-life gathering to be held this summer are incomplete.

In addition to her sister, Ms. Barrett is survived by her son, Dr. Christian McEvoy of Virginia Beach; two brothers, Richard M. Barrett of Frederick and Philip Barrett of Mount Dora, Florida; another sister, Christina B. Boss of Cuenca, Ecuador; and a granddaughter, Ellie McEvoy of Virginia Beach. Her marriage to Jeffrey McEvoy ended in divorce.

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