When James Hingeley (Law ’76) completed a judicial clerkship for the West Virginia Supreme Court in 1978 after graduating from UVA School of Law, glittering possibilities lay before him.
Hingeley, who attended Harvard University as an undergraduate, had opportunities at major national law firms in New York City; he could have followed the typical path for someone with his credentials. Instead, he returned to Virginia and spent much of his career defending the indigent, starting two public defender offices, first in Lynchburg and then in Charlottesville.
Hingeley retired in August. In his 25 years in public service, he established in Central Virginia an exemplary model of community collaboration to improve the criminal justice system.
He says the simplest of desires motivated him throughout his career: to stand alongside people who need help. Experience taught him that he could serve his clients the most when he was able to influence what happens after conviction. “Good sentencing advocacy helps people who are in trouble get back on track in their lives,” Hingeley says, providing a benefit not only to individual defendants but to the community.
The first public defender’s office Hingeley started was in Lynchburg, in 1991, after 15 years at a small general practice firm in Charlottesville. Virginia’s Public Defender Commission selected Hingeley as head public defender and let him build the office from the ground up. “I started in a rented room with a card table and two chairs,” he says. The work of staffing and running an office was “icing on the cake,” Hingeley adds. “I could establish a culture that cared about high standards and cared about the people we represented.”
In Lynchburg, Hingeley defended three capital cases, which he says are difficult because of their complexity and the strong feelings they generate in communities. With capital murder cases, he says, “any case you can work out is a win. You try to get it resolved on a plea that doesn’t result in a death sentence.” One of Hingeley’s capital cases went through to trial and sentencing in 1993. His client, Steven Brice, was given a life sentence. “A local paper wrote an editorial condemning the outcome as not being severe enough,” Hingeley says. “But it comes with the territory. I was in it to do my best work, and to have saved a person’s life.”
In Charlottesville, where Hingeley opened a public defender’s office for the city and Albemarle County in 1998, he took on one more capital case (which ended in a plea). Most of his cases, however, were for much smaller offenses, and many of his clients, he acknowledges, were found guilty. “The question is, ‘What do you do about it?’” he asks.
When indigent clients have to make restitution, yet also draw jail time, Hingeley says, it creates a catch-22 that traps them in the system—if not sooner, then later as repeat offenders. Hingeley’s office, in partnership with the sheriff’s office, helped develop an inmate work program to help convicted offenders get out of that spiral.
Hingeley says the criminal justice community in Charlottesville and Albemarle is uncommonly successful in working together. In 2007 he and others representing the region’s court and mental health systems adopted the crisis intervention team model, a program for helping police deal more effectively with citizens in the midst of mental health crises. In 2010, the region secured one of just seven national grants for a pilot Justice Department program focused on evidence-based decision-making. “It was a very competitive selection process,” Hingeley says, “and the reason we were selected is that we’d already established this kind of collaborative tradition.”
Hingeley has received plenty of accolades over the years, and he has won praise for his soft-spoken style. “He’s an amazing advocate for his clients, but also a very gentle and kind human being,” Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Nina-Alice Antony (Col ’07) says. “He invites you to be on friendly terms.”
Kindness and friendliness seem counterintuitive to the adversarial world of criminal justice. Hingeley says that sometimes people ask him how he can represent murderers. The unlikable clients are the exceptions, he tells them. Most of his clients, he genuinely likes. More than anything, helping them is what kept him doing this work.
“The vast majority are good people who’ve just gotten in some trouble,” he says. “With a little bit of help, they could put their lives back together and be good citizens.”