Sunday, August 29, 2004
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New public defender brings a can-do ethic

Salem native John Varney has one of the valley's sharpest legal minds, a former co-worker said.

tad.dickens@roanoke.com 981-3236

The trials were piling on top of one another for John Varney in Richmond's toughest criminal court.

The young assistant public defender had only one co-worker at the Manchester courthouse in 1986-87, and she was a rookie. On top of that, you never knew what might happen at the courthouse, which was right next to a housing project. Deputies escorted judges and attorneys to their cars - if the cars hadn't been stolen or shot at, Varney's colleagues say.

"I don't want to go so far as to say it was a war zone, but it was not the best place to be," said Virginia Supreme Court Clerk Trish Krueger, who was the rookie that year. "It was quite an experience over there."

Varney was apparently unaware of such mayhem at the time. He had 20 jury trials that year. And they were the toughest of the felony cases tried in front of Circuit Judge Frank Wright, among the toughest jurists in Virginia at the time, Krueger said. Wright's lengthy sentences so frightened defendants that they opted for jury trials in faint hopes of acquittal, Varney said.

If bullets were flying or if deputies were escorting the judge to and fro, "I didn't notice it," Varney said.

Those dues long paid, Varney enters his 20th year in the law as Roanoke's public defender. The Virginia Public Defender Commission selected him to replace Ray Leven in a job that he officially began earlier this month. Varney had been the interim chief since Leven left the office in the spring.

The commission couldn't have made a better choice, said Jay Finch, a former assistant public defender in the Roanoke office. Varney has one of the valley's sharpest legal minds, Finch said.

"I think you can safely say that all the attorneys in the public defender's office, when they have what they perceive to be a bad, ugly case, John's the man you talk to, because John has seen and tried a lot of bad, ugly cases, so he knows what to look out for," said Finch, a lawyer in the Capital Defense Unit of Southwest Virginia. "He knows what you've got to do to protect your client, but he also knows what to look for that the commonwealth's attorneys will come at you with and what you can expect from the judge."

Varney, 45, a Salem native, began his career in 1984 in the office he now runs. When the public defender's office opened in Richmond, he moved there, but the incredible pace drove him into private practice with Morgan Griffith, his old classmate at Andrew Lewis High School who would become majority leader in the Virginia House of Delegates.

Two years later, Varney wanted back in the criminal defense game.

"I just found that wills and bankruptcies and divorces and real estate closings didn't really get me excited or get me motivated," Varney said. "And this does."

Leven hired him for a second time.

He doesn't have near the amount of trial work that he dealt with in Richmond. Not that criminal defense in Roanoke is stress-free.

Varney's two sons were small fry a decade ago when their father represented two women charged with killing their children.

In September 1995, Simone Ann Ayton received 18 years in prison after pleading guilty to second-degree murder for drowning her 7-month-old son in a bathtub. Nearly a year later, a jury convicted Veronica Via of first-degree murder in the beating of her newborn daughter at a Roanoke homeless shelter. She was sentenced to 20 years.

Newspaper accounts of both cases showed similar preludes to murder. The children's fathers had abandoned the women, and their families had shunned them after they became pregnant.

"That was difficult, and at the time, I think I had thoughts of whether I could or should be doing it," Varney said. "But I felt like that's what I'm here for."

The same applies to other defendants he represents, he said.

"When you meet the clients, no matter what they've done, they are people, and they all have their stories that need to be told," he said.

And now he has running an office to deal with. Varney said he looks forward to using his new role as a way to make things better for his attorneys and their clients.

Task one is filling three vacancies. Varney said the interviews are done, and all that is left is the hiring.

The vacancies occurred about the time Leven left. Since then, the public defender's office has been too short-handed to do traffic court and a portion of the juvenile and domestic relations docket that deals with adult defendants. Varney said that, thanks to judges, clerks and private attorneys willing to take up the slack, those dockets have remained active.

If working to fill those jobs was stressful, Varney did not show it. Colleagues said he keeps a cool head no matter what.

"He's very poised, very low-key," said Krueger, the state supreme court clerk. "If you were just on the outside looking in, you'd have no idea that he was shouldering the majority of the load," she said of their time together in Richmond.

"He didn't show stress. He didn't complain. He just did the work."

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