Jensen Barber R.I.P.
On September 9, defense attorney Jensen E. Barber passed away at Sibley Hospital, succumbing to a lung infection. He had fought off the infection for weeks inside the ICU. He was 64.
A prominent lawyer had e-mailed me the news while I was away. He knew I'd want to know. He had listened to me talk up Barber's skills, gushing about his chops inside a courtroom and his charm outside of them. It is hard not to still feel shocked that Barber will no longer be brightening up an intricate federal drug case with his southern charm and monogrammed peach-sorbet colored shirts.
I can still remember sitting next to him at Zola after he insisted on taking me out for a special Hanukkah dinner. My entire wardrobe cost less than his handkerchiefs. I spent the entire night just listening, and trying not to embarrass myself.
I'd seen the man's work up close and always walked away thinking Barber was the smartest man in the courtroom. He'd question a government's witness like a great chess master—three moves ahead of whatever the prosecutor was thinking. When the moment demanded it, he could be a passionate and articulate storyteller. Hundreds of defendants got the benefit of his presence and his ease with a powerful narrative. Now people get to tell stories about Barber.
At his recent memorial service, both defense attorneys and prosecutors showed up. Barber was someone so fundamentally good that even the most veteran prosecutors held him in high standing.
"Jensen Barber was a very respected defense counsel who represented his clients zealously and honorably," writes Acting U.S. Attorney Channing Phillips in an e-mail to City Desk. "He was the consummate professional and a straight shooter whose word you could rely on. He also was a genuinely decent person with a great sense of humor, and one whose time was way too short."
After the news broke of Barber's death, Joan Draper, a long-time AUSA and long-time Barber friend, solicited recollections and thoughts from a number of prosecutors.
One prosecutor told Draper that Barber's obit mentioned his receiving the bronze star for his bravery in Vietnam. The prosecutor felt that this may have given readers the impression that Barber was some Rambo type. He wasn't. He had a different style of bravery. "[The prosecutor] called it the Atticus Finch bravery," Draper says. "Quiet resolve. Always a professional putting it forward."
Another told Draper that Barber always left the fighting for the courtroom. In between the sparring, Barber would be telling jokes over fine meals or offering sailboat trips on the Chesapeake.
Draper recalls working a drug case against Barber in 1984. She had just joined the U.S. Attorney's Office; she was a total rookie. When a continuance was needed, Barber wrote up the motion. Draper says he then showed her the already court-stamped motion papers. The papers contained an admission that the case was just another dumb drug case. He attributed the confession to Draper.
"The guy had the ability to make friends with everybody," Draper says. "He always kept his word.... He was just a very straight shooter.... I can tell you public defenders I steer clear of or people with the CJA bar. Jensen wasn’t like that. People saw him as a very above-board guy. Not that he didn’t fight. He fought big time for his guys. But he was human."
For at least the last decade of his life, Barber's main fights involved high-profile RICO death penalty cases. Among these long and complicated trials, Barber stood out as a leader on the defense side. He was very proud of this work, especially when he could save a client from a long sentence or worse. He saved Larry Gooch from a death-penalty verdict in 2007. Before the trial, he spoke out against the increased use of the death penalty to the Wall Street Journal.
Steve Kiersh, a defense attorney, has known Jensen for over 20 years. The two had recently co-counseled a MS-13 gang case in Greenbelt. “He was a very, very good lawyer, a very thorough lawyer, a very caring lawyer and a very hard fighting lawyer," he says.
Barber was born in Asheville, North Carolina. He was fluent in French and Spanish. He outfitted his condo with a killer stereo system. He cried at the opera. You can read his bio here.
As has been mentioned by other attorneys, his other main passions were his long-time companion, Lilliane Litton, and sailing the Chesapeake. "He had a couple different boats," recalls civil attorney Curt Hansen. "I remember the first sailboat—this sort of tubby sailboat. He took me out on that. We spent a day out there and it was like late, late at night when we finally came back in the harbor. We ran out of wind. I couldn’t get the engine started. The alternator on the thing hadn’t been working so the battery had run down so we didn’t have any running lights. Jensen started paddling."
Hansen continues: "He was standing in the back of the boat and he was singing opera like he was a gondolier. As we got close, I yelled at him: 'Why are you singing?'" Jensen replied: "So that no one will crash into us." Hansen argued that people may be trying to sleep, that they might take offense to his operatic stylings.
"So he says 'OK,' and then he started singing some Allman Brothers," Hansen recalls.
“He treated everyone as though they were family," Hansen says. "Even his clients. In a certain respect, he had that Woody Allen Broadway Danny Rose aspect to his character."
Jensen's circle was big. He collected all of us: journalists, lawyers, an ABC producer in New York, whoever. Every few months, he'd call or I'd call. He'd answer ironically formal: "Hello, Mr. Cherkis." On his voice mail, he pretended to be a British butler.
He'd let you tease him about his peach shirts. If the time allowed, he'd take two hours to explain his latest defense strategy or show off his new computer-assisted gadgets for an upcoming closing argument. I recall he had a fake security camera posted high above his desk.
“With Jensen, you felt that he was genuinely interested in you or anyone that he would meet—almost to a fault. Sometimes he would spread himself too thin trying to solve or address everyone’s issues or problems," Hansen says.
Those monogrammed shirts expanded his circle even further. Draper says Barber often passed them on to his companion's Cuban masseuse. She recalls: "Those clothes would all get sent to Cuba."
Somewhere in Havana, Cuban men are walking around with Barber's initials on their breast pockets—one tiny, inadvertent tribute I'm sure he would have loved.