There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Some lawyers drive Cadillacs to work. Roger A. Durban, D.C. criminal-defense attorney, drives one, too, of sorts. It’s a 10-wheeled Peterbilt semi-truck cab—“the Cadillac of trucks.”
It smokes. It shakes. It rumbles. It has a wind foil. It has no shocks; instead, its seats bounce up and down. It’s got a sleeper. It’s not what you would expect to find at attaché-cased, “yes, your honor” Judiciary Square, but that’s where Durban parks it.
Durban says the silver-semi-hemi of Judiciary Square is just a hobby, something for a self-proclaimed blue-collar kind of guy to play with. “Some nights when I can’t sleep, I take it for a loop tour around the Beltway—the 63-mile loop. And sometimes the girlfriend and I take it out on a date,” he says.
Maybe it’s just a hobby, but it looks like the muscle car of the boy who never grew up, a guy with some serious disposable income’s answer to every suck-up, horn-rimmed urban cowboy lawyer commuting from the ’burbs in a trendy Explorer.
I didn’t know what it meant to be taken for a ride by a lawyer until I climbed into the silver Pete and rode shotgun. The truck is a 1971 collector’s item, fully restored. When Durban bought it a few years ago, the body was full of buckshot holes. Now it has a new interior: Call it the ’70s Adolescent Male Fantasy look. The roof and walls are covered with quilted black vinyl; they look like an upside-down dominatrix couch. The seats are also covered in black vinyl, and each sits on top of an air-suspension cylinder that pogos at every serious bump. My seat leaks air from the auto-bounce gizmo. Every time I shift a cheek or we take a pothole, it sounds like a whoopie cushion.
Durban has also armed his big-boy toy with plenty of gizmos. He has mounted powerful, maneuverable spotlights on top of the cab. Black joysticks in the roof upholstery control the beams of light. When he encounters a stretch limo, Durban shines the spots into the back seat to see who’s in it and what’s going on.
Built in an era before the energy crisis, when Detroit hadn’t yet heard of drag coefficients, the truck’s surfaces are blunt and flat. You could stack a pile of bricks and spray-paint it silver and it would be a dead ringer. Flat nose, flat hood, flat bumper, flat fenders, flat windshield—the guys who designed this truck thought that “aerodynamic” meant Brut in an aerosol can.
Might as well just come out and say it: Roger Durban’s clients are the kind most lawyers run from: alleged murderers (40 of them, by his count), violent criminals, armed robbers, and prostitutes—lots of prostitutes. Many of his clients are Criminal Justice Act cases—the accused is too poor to hire a lawyer. (Durban also gets the occasional college boy nailed DWI in Georgetown with Mummy and Daddy’s Jag.)
Durban has earned a reputation at Superior Court for being both good and—surprise, surprise—flamboyant.
“Roger is in the top 10 percent of the lawyers around here,” volunteers a fellow D.C. Superior Court criminal-defense attorney nervous about talking to a reporter.
“He is definitely a free spirit,” says Stuart Johnson, a lawyer who shares an office with Durban. Consider his closing argument on behalf of Larry J. McClinton, accused of kidnapping and murdering Anthony Morrisey. Morrisey’s killers had first tried to ransom him for a large quantity of cocaine.
“One thing was certain when the sun came up on the morning after Anthony Morrisey’s death,” he told the jury, according the Washington Post. “There was one less drug dealer in Washington.”
McClinton was convicted, but as we cruise along the Southeast Freeway, Durban tells me he doesn’t regret his unusual strategy.
“My guy was lookin’ pitiful,” he says, foot off the break, 10 wheels rolling. “I said that about the victim because you want the jury to know you’re not talkin’ about the minister’s son or the leader of the Bible study group….Most people don’t like drug dealers.” He spins the steering wheel like a pressure lock on a submarine hatch, and 425 horses haul us into the 2nd Street tunnel.
“Initially I got into law out of a concern for the state of the poor. Now I’ve seen another side of poverty, the side where there are violent criminals, and it’s not so easy to rationalize on the same basis,” he says. “But the truth is I find criminal law fascinating, even thrilling. I enjoy defending murderers. I enjoy sitting in a jail conference room talking to someone charged with murder, plotting strategy, and later putting the government to its test.”
Durban’s friends warn him against talking to reporters, but he does, and he doesn’t take a breath or even pause to let my pen catch up, especially when he starts riffing on a favorite subject—prostitutes. Or, as Durban prefers to call his clients, “courtesans.”
“On the days when I am privately retained and walk into court with a client charged with solicitation, the irony of the scene is not lost on me,” he begins in his usual theatrical way. “My client, who earned her money the hard way—allegedly—and I walk in and there are three clerks, three or more U.S. marshals, three or more well-coiffed assistant U.S. attorneys—make sure you get that ‘well-coiffed’ part in—15 to 25 Metropolitan police officers, and at least as many court-appointed lawyers, all waiting for the trial commissioner to finish up the sports pages and get up on the bench at 10:17 in the morning.” He repeats the part about the sports pages several times to make sure I write it down, then continues.
“If she’s guilty, she’s earning hers the hard way, and these bureaucrats snickering at my platinum blond—make sure you get that ‘platinum blond’ part—client are getting by easy just processing my client, who to them is the whore.”
He makes sure that his irony, “platinum-blond” client versus “well-coiffed” prosecutors, is not lost on me.
“Durban is a self-made lawyer,” said one longtime defense attorney in the District who asked to remain anonymous, “and they have a right to [blow their own] bugle.”
Durban is bopping down the street, his air-cushion seat keeping time, working the two gear-shift levers through 20 forward gears, pumping the giant pedals with his feet like a one-man band. Now that the soft wheel-whine is in my ear, and American road songs are running through my head, a semi for a hobby makes perfect sense. It sure blows stamp collecting out the exhaust stacks.
Durban always wanted to drive trucks, and that’s what he did when he ran away from home—or as he prefers to say, when he “took leave of my parents’ residence at the age of 15.” Now 45 years old, he’s been a criminal lawyer since he finished Antioch School of Law 15 years ago. He lives off Alabama Avenue SE, in the Good Hope neighborhood, and he parks his 25-foot road-hog in front of his house’s picture window.
It’s not easy to keep a semi for a pet. The Caterpillar diesel engine guzzles a gallon of fuel every three or three-and-a-half miles. “I go out to get a six-pack”—and you know he’s going to take the truck to do that—“and it costs me two six-packs in fuel just to get to the store and back.”
Durban pulls the rig over and parks it in front of his house. He kills the engine. Two dozen gauges drop to zero on the dashboard, and the air brakes release their pressure in a hiss. When our conversation comes to a close, Durban hands over his card, or cards. The first one is a normal attorney’s card; the second he prefaces with, “Here’s one I had printed for the Tribe motorcycle gang in Maryland, which I represent.”
It displays the Harley logo and the specifications of Durban’s own bike (Panhead—80 cubic inches). I thought I’d be writing about a truck-driving lawyer, and now Durban has moved on to another cult-transportation vehicle altogether. What will his next stop be—a B-17 Flying Fortress? —Chris Peterson