Editor’s note: This profile of Connecticut Superior Court Judge Robert Devlin Jr. is part of a series of interviews with judges and recently retired jurists.
Calling himself a “hard science guy” who was always interested in math and science, Superior Court Judge Robert Devlin Jr. did not take an interest in becoming an attorney until he was 20 years old.
But thanks to many mentors in the legal profession—and his mother who was an avid reader—Devlin pursued law and quickly rose through the ranks. He graduated from the University of Connecticut School of Law in 1975 and worked in private practice for three years until becoming a public defender in New Haven for one year. After working as a public defender—a role that Devlin said help make him into a better lawyer and judge—he worked eight years as a prosecutor under then-State’s Attorney Arnold Markle, one of his many legal mentors and heroes.
Devlin was a federal prosecutor for the U.S. Department of Justice, before his 1992 appointment to Superior Court judge and his current role as presiding judge in Bridgeport Superior Court, criminal division.
Although he only worked one year as a public defender, Devlin said that experience had a deep impact on him as a person, a lawyer and then, ultimately, as a judge.
Devlin, who grew up in the New Haven area and came from a lower- to middle-class background, told the Connecticut Law Tribune on Tuesday that while working those 12 months as a public defender he came to realize “just how many really poor people there are in our society.”
“That really affected me,” he said.
Known by his peers for his caring and patient tone in the courtroom, Devlin said that as a public defender, he saw first-hand the goodness of people.
“There [was] a group of Quaker women in court everyday, and they acted as a resource for people, to give those in trouble support,” he said. “Their goodness just oozed out of them.”
That experience, albeit a brief one, made him the jurist he is today, Devlin said.
“I tried jury cases, got in the arena, rolled up my sleeves and did the best I could,” the Shelton resident said. “To be perfectly frank, it takes a lot of guts to stand in front of a jury when your client’s liberty is on the line. I’m so glad I had that experience.”
While Devlin said he tries every day “to be fair and consistent,” those who know him and have seen him behind the bench said he does all that and more.
“He is, by far, the gold standard for judges,” said Connecticut Supreme Court Justice Maria Kahn. “He was the person I could always count on to go for sound advice. He is so knowledgeable about the law and has this incredible ability to take any issue and calmly analyze it.”
Kahn continued: “His temperament, both on and off the bench, is exemplary. If you watched him on the bench, as I had the pleasure of doing, you become very impressed. I try to model him. He is very patient in trying to understand the concerns and fears of litigants.”
Devlin has presided over several well-publicized and notable cases. They included the murder trial of New London attorney Beth Carpenter, who was convicted of arranging the murder-for-hire of her brother-in-law; the death-penalty trial of Russell Peeler, who arranged for the murder of a mother and child whom he believed were slated to testify against him in a drug case; and the death-penalty trial of Christopher DiMeo, who was convicted of murdering the husband-and-wife owners of a jewelry store.
The most emotional and gut-wrenching case he ever tried, though, did not get the fanfare of the media spotlight. Devlin gets emotional just talking about the case.
It involved a Japanese exchange student who was picked at random by two men following her in her car. They ended up putting the woman in her car trunk until they got to a secluded part of Woodbridge where they repeatedly sexually assaulted her before beating her with a rock.
“Her testimony was vivid. It had no adverbs and she told a chilling story in court,” Devlin recalled. “You felt this woman’s pain flood the courtroom. I’ve never had that experience in a courtroom. It was really chilling. She had a night of stark terror and everyone in the courtroom knew it.” The two suspects each got 70-year prison sentences after a jury trial.
Devlin said his career, which will end as a Superior Court judge in two years when he reaches the mandatory retirement age of 70, was molded by many people. First among them were his parents, particularly his mother Beryl Devlin.
“She read a book a week, and it rubbed off on me.” he said. “A big part of life is self-learning and the great thing about being a lawyer and a judge is that it makes you learn. I got my love of reading from my mother and my grandmother.”
Devlin is an adjunct professor at Naugatuck Valley Community College. He’s authored a textbook for his litigation class at the college.