Dovey Johnson Roundtree, a Washington criminal defense lawyer and courtroom warrior for civil rights who played a critical early role in the desegregation of interstate bus travel and mentored several generations of black lawyers, died May 21 at an assisted-living facility in Charlotte. She was 104.
The cause was complications from Alzheimer’s disease, said Jerry L. Hunter, her cousin and law partner.
In a career that spanned nearly half a century, Ms. Roundtree defended predominantly poor African American clients — as well as black churches, community groups and the occasional politician. She was, former Fisk University president Walter J. Leonard once told The Washington Post, “a legal-aid clinic before there were legal-aid clinics.”
Her best-knowncase involved the black day laborer accused in the 1964 killing of Georgetown socialite and painter Mary Pinchot Meyer, who reportedly had an affair with President John F. Kennedy. She won him an acquittal despite what initially appeared to be damning witness testimony.
Ms. Roundtree’s handling of the high-profile legal matter was later praised by Robert S. Bennett, who observed the proceedings as a clerk for the judge and decades later represented President Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Ms. Roundtree, Bennett recalled in his memoir “In the Ring” (2008), “had a motherly warmth” and a “low-key, casual style” that appealed “not only to the mind but also the heart and soul of the jurors.”
“It was as if she was pleading for her own son,” Bennett added, “not a guilty defendant.”
Interviewed for a book about the trial, “A Very Private Woman” (1998), by political reporter Nina Burleigh, Ms. Roundtree explained that the case had additional significance for her because the defendant, Raymond Crump Jr., was a black man accused of murdering a white woman.
“I think in the black community there was a feeling that even if Crump was innocent, he was a dead duck,” she said. “Even if he didn’t do it, he’s guilty. I took that as a personal challenge. I was caught up in civil rights, heart, body, and soul, but I felt law was one vehicle that would bring remedy.”