By Callie Hietala
After more than 30 years on the bench, David Williams retired as the judge of the Henry County Circuit Court in February.
A Henry County native, Williams, now 67, did not set out to pursue a career in the field. However, he worked as a lawyer, prosecutor, then judge, and even oversaw the construction of a new county courthouse.
After graduating from Drewry Mason High School, he spent two years at what is now Patrick & Henry Community College before going to Virginia Tech, where he earned a degree in psychology.
Initially, Williams said he intended to pursue a post-graduate degree in psychology and even applied for a program. Then he took the LSAT, “and it turned out my LSAT score was considerably higher” than his psychology score. So, he decided to go to law school, and enrolled at Campbell University in North Carolina.
“The folks at Campbell were very kind to me,” Williams recalled. They gave me a nice scholarship.”
After graduating, Williams returned to the area, living with his grandmother as he searched for a job. He applied for a position as an assistant commonwealth’s attorney at the Martinsville office, but several months passed and he did not receive a reply.
One day, Williams recalled going to a local restaurant to pick up some chicken. There, he had a chance encounter with Randy Smith who was then-Commonwealth’s Attorney John Marley’s assistant. Smith informed Williams that, after his interview, “We decided to hire you on the spot. I just haven’t sent the letter out yet.”
Williams said he returned to his grandmother’s house with the chicken and happily announced, “Grandma, I got a job!”
“Frying chicken?” she asked, incredulously. “You’ve got a law degree!”
Williams, laughing heartily at the memory, said he quickly cleared up the confusion.
Williams was just 35 when he began serving as an Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney. He did that for two years, then went into private practice with attorney Fred Smith for three years. Smith, Williams said, “is just a tremendous lawyer.”
Williams recalled that then-Commonwealth’s Attorney Roscoe Reynolds decided to run for the House of Delegates. Judge Ken Covington appointed Williams to Reynolds’ fulfill the year remaining in Reynolds’ term. Williams then sought the seat in a formal election.
In addition to appointing him to the post, Covington also served as an example to Williams, leaving an impression that is vivid in Williams’ memory.
“Ken Covington is the best judge I’ve ever seen in my life, without a doubt,” Williams said. “Five years with him, it was like a graduate course in law.”
Covington “understood people. He had a good knowledge of the law, but he just understood people. That’s very, very important. You can’t be a good judge and not understand how people think and how people act. He was a man’s man and a judge’s judge. He had a humanity about him, and he didn’t take himself too seriously. I always said that if I can be half the judge he was, I’d be satisfied.”
Eventually, Covington decided to retire and called Williams into his office.
“A.L. Philpott was Speaker of the House at the time,” Williams recalled. Covington told Williams if he had any interest in taking over his position, Philpott was the man he should speak to. “He was the kingmaker,” Williams said of Philpott.
He found Philpott in the deed room of the courthouse and offered to buy him a cup of coffee. He told Philpott he was interested in the position, “but my momma didn’t raise a fool. If you’ve got somebody else in mind, let me know and I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing,” he told him.
Williams recalled that Philpott wiped his pipe, sipped his coffee, and said he would support him for the judgeship.
After five years serving as Commonwealth’s Attorney, Williams took the bench as the Henry County Circuit Court Judge. There, he spent the next 30 years and presided in hundreds of cases, some of which were more memorable than others.
“You saw some things that were just horrendous,” he recalled. “You have to do what you have to do. I’ve had some dreadful cases where I’ve had to give someone life in prison and was very happy to do it.”
In fact, judges often face decisions that most of us do not, and must walk the line between helping people rehabilitate their lives and recognizing when someone is beyond help.
When facing those decisions, Williams said a number of criteria helped him decide.
“You look at the crime that was committed first, what did they do. Number two, you look at their prior record. Have they had chance after chance after chance after chance? And then, number three, what’s the chance for them to be rehabilitated?
“Young people, you try to err on the side of grace, because you want young people to get by and hopefully turn their lives around,” Williams said. “But then you get guys who have been in prison for 90 percent of their lives, and there’s not anything you can do for them. They’re not going to change their lives; they’re simply going to be a burden to society.”
Two of the more horrendous cases stand out in Williams’ memory.
In one, a man was released from prison after a 15-year sentence. His sister, Williams recalled, took the man in, let him live with her, and even helped him find a job. “And he proceeds to do dreadful things to her, just dreadful things,” he said, without going into more detail. “You just want to go, ‘what’s wrong with you?’”
The second occurred under similar circumstances as the first. A former prisoner was released and moved in with his sister, Williams said. “He proceeds to cut her up into bits and buries her in the backyard. And you just go, ‘man, what are you thinking?’ Sometimes you just can’t understand. Some things people do, you can’t understand it.”
However, many of the cases adjudicated in his court had more pleasant conclusions.
“I remember a young kid stole shoes,” he said. “Why he would steal shoes, I don’t know.”
Williams said he gave the offender a suspended sentence, put him on probation, and “he ended up going to college, and actually got a master’s degree while he was on probation. So that turned out well.”
Another time, he recalled, he was in a store when a woman approached him asking if he was Judge Williams.
“I never wanted to admit that I was,” he said with a laugh, “but I said yes. She said, ‘I want to thank you so much. You put my grandson in jail.’
“I said, ‘I’m sorry I had to do that,’ and she said, ‘Oh no, that’s the best thing that ever happened to him. He got his life straightened out.’”
On yet another occasion, Williams was at a local restaurant when a man and his young daughter walked in.
“You put me in prison,” the man told Williams, who again apologized.
But Williams learned the sentence actually helped the man, who replied, “’I’ve got a beautiful wife, young daughter, I’ve got a good job, and if it hadn’t been for you, I would have had that.’
“It makes you feel good when you make a difference in somebody’s life,” Williams added.
Williams was judge when the court moved from the former Henry County courthouse to the newly built facility in 1996. Williams chuckled when he recalled the pre-construction phase.
“Well, of course we had to sue to get the courthouse built,” he said. “But it was the friendliest suit. The Board of Supervisors were all on board that we’ve got to do something. I give credit to them because they did the right thing.
“I loved the old courthouse,” Williams said. “It had so much dignity to it.” However, it had issues as well, including rats, “centipedes falling out of the ceiling, they knew we had to build something new.”
He recalled going to the construction site to watch a crew laying tile.
“It was like they were fighting fire. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. They laid the entire second and third floor in one day,” he said.
In the new courthouse, Williams presided over many, many cases and had the opportunity to see many of the members of the area’s legal community in his courtroom.
“We have a tremendous legal culture here in Martinsville and Henry County that you don’t often see in other circuits,” Williams said. “I’ve been blessed with really, really good lawyers—Phil Gardner, Fred Smith, Roscoe Reynolds, Jim Haskins—just really top-notch lawyers, which makes my job easy. If you’ve got good lawyers, you’re going to get a good result.
“That’s just the tradition in this area,” he said. “It was like that when I started in 1980 and it’s been like that ever since.” The attorneys that were practicing when he began his career, “they set the bar. If you wanted to be a lawyer here in Martinsville and Henry County, you had to live up to that.”
If Williams’ reputation is an indication, he lived up the standard set by his predecessors, including Judge Covington.
“I did my best,” Williams said. “I like to think I got better at it as years went by. You knew what you had to do when you got there. You had to be fair, you had to be honest, you had to give both sides an even break and that doesn’t change,” he said. “That’s just the way it is.”
The Hon. Judge David Williams, retired chief judge of the 21st Judicial Circuit, is enjoying retirement after a 42-year legal career, including 30 years spent on the bench. Williams became a judge at the age of 35 and retired at 67.
Supervisors Debra Buchanan (far left) of the Horsepasture District, Tommy Slaughter of the Reed Creek District (second from left) and Garrett Dillard of the Iriswood District (far right) present a resolution to Williams (second from right) marking his retirement in February.