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When Robert L. Wilkins was considering what his first job as a lawyer should be, one of his professors at Harvard Law School, Charles Ogletree Jr., was a critical influence. “I had an interest in public service and Ogletree had come through the D.C. public defender service.” The public defender service for the District of Columbia, he notes, was widely recognized as a training ground for top trial and appellate attorneys. Alumni include, besides Ogletree, Michele Roberts, one of Washington, D.C.’s most accomplished trial lawyers, and Dennis Sweet of Jackson, Miss.’ Langston, Sweet & Freese, a plaintiffs’ attorney who has won numerous multimillion-dollar verdicts. Wilkins joined the agency in 1990, after spending a year as a clerk for U.S. District Judge Earl Gilliam, now deceased. After six weeks of training, he was given a baptism by fire. Wilkins started in the appellate division and immediately after the training session was completed, he says, “A pile of transcripts, a couple thousand pages of paper, was dropped on my desk.” While other young lawyers elsewhere were working on minor civil cases, or misdemeanor defenses or prosecutions, Wilkins was assigned the appeal of a first-degree murder conviction. In 1991, Wilkins won a reversal of the conviction, as the D.C. appellate court decided the trial court erred by not declaring a mistrial. The defendant later entered a no-contest plea to the lesser charge of manslaughter. “He was out in a couple of years,” Wilkins says. During his 10 years at the public defender office, Wilkins was attorney of record in more than 12 reported decisions and supervised and assisted with numerous other appeals. He also spent time as a trial lawyer, handling everything from petty shoplifters and blackmailers to defendants accused of multiple homicides, winning more than 80 percent of the jury trials. As an appellate lawyer, too, there were some outright successes. “I brought the first challenge to the D.C. stalking statute and won,” he says. He won a landmark civil rights lawsuit against the Maryland state police over racial profiling. But, overall, most of his appeals were losses, he says. “That’s the nature of a criminal appellate practice. But they weren’t complete losses.” Wilkins, for instance, was a lead attorney for the plaintiffs in a class action attempting to enforce a consent decree governing conditions at the District of Columbia’s secure juvenile-detention facilities. He tried two contested civil contempt proceedings, leading to one landmark decision to place the detention center school in receivership. This decision was later overturned, but by then, he says, the detention center had put into place the reforms requested. Throughout his tenure, Wilkins was taking on cutting-edge issues, such as DNA admissibility, grand jury abuse, the scope of expert testimony, equitable relief and vicarious liability. In 1995, he became the chief of the special litigation and programs division, where he coordinated and pushed impact litigation. As he expected when he joined the agency, the training and experience proved invaluable. “I learned … how to deal with jurors as people. I learned how to fight when the judge is against you, the law is against you and the prosecution is against you.” He left the agency as a full-time attorney in 1999 and became president of the National African American Museum and Cultural Complex Inc., where he played a key role in the passage of legislation creating funding for the museum. In May, he joined Venable as a partner in Washington, D.C., where he has already begun working on white-collar defense matters, including environmental crimes. When he left the public defender’s office, Wilkins kept one of the cases. He represents plaintiffs in a class action challenging the D.C. Sex Offender Registration Act on constitutional grounds. “Our basic argument is that the statute violates procedural due process. Instead of identifying dangerous sex offenders, it labels all sex offenders as dangerous.” In September, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia agreed and issued an injunction against enforcement of the law. The issue is on appeal.

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