'Model judge': Herb Pickford dies at 75
The obituary for Herbert A. Pickford III tells very little about the man, nothing about his occupation, his accomplishments, his hobbies, his age, where he was born, who his parents were– the usual information contained in an obituary.
He wanted it that way because he wrote it himself, says his wife of 48 years, Ann. "He was very modest. He achieved a lot, and he didn't need to tell everyone about it."
That's why readers of his obituary won't pick up that Pickford was one of the most respected judges around who, during his 17 years on the bench, handled low- and high-profile cases, such as the conviction of Glen Barker for the murder of 12-year-old Katie Worsky– only the second murder conviction in Virginia without a body– and earned the praise of fellow attorneys who appeared before him.
"I consider him the model judge," says lawyer Fred Payne. "He had a terrific judicial demeanor. He was calm, fair, and smart."
"He had a great judicial temperament," echoes Public Defender Jim Hingeley. "He concentrated, he listened and was decisive. He had it all. Any case in front of him was good."
Pickford, 75, was born in Griffin, Georgia, where his father worked in textiles. His grandfather owned a farm at Mechums River, land to which Pickford returned and where he died at home June 7.
He attended UVA for both undergrad and law school, and was a Phi Beta Kappa, says his brother, Gale Pickford, with whom the judge practiced law after he retired from Charlottesville Circuit Court in 1990.
"He was six years older than me and the model I wanted to follow," says the younger Pickford. "He was the standard we were held up to."
Herbert Pickford was appointed Albemarle General District Court judge in 1973. Three years later, he was appointed a judge of the 16th Circuit, sitting primarily in Charlottesville.
"I appeared before him almost daily for about 13 years," recalls former Charlottesville commonwealth's attorney Dick Barrick. 'He had a very good record with the Supreme Court. Only one of his cases was reversed, and no criminal cases were."
Barrick knew Pickford, who was younger, when Pickford first started practicing law and calls him a "very dear friend." Pickford's courtroom demeanor, describes Barrick, was that of a very humble man.
"He gave everyone the opportunity to be heard," says Barrick. "And he was patient. Everyone who appeared in his court– even the defendants– felt justice had been done."
Ann Pickford met her future husband when he came to the church in Waynesboro where she sang in the choir. She was taken with "his quick sense of humor," she recalls.
"The most challenging cases he had were the ones that involved children," she says, "such as custody cases. Those were the hardest ones."
The trial of Glen Barker involved a child, Katie Worsky, whose disappearance rocked Charlottesville in 1982, and still affects those involved 27 years later. Pickford presided over the trial that resulted in a second-degree murder conviction for Barker, a trail that was so intense, he held court on Saturday to get it done, one of Barker's attorneys told the Hook in 2007.
Even after his retirement, Pickford remained involved in controversial cases. When Jason Childress, 27, suffered severe brain damage after a car wreck in 2003 and his family couldn't decide whether to remove him from life support, the situation became a national story– and Pickford was appointed guardian for Childress.
He ordered life support removed; Childress survived with significant brain damage.
Fred Payne recalls a civil jury case that didn't have bailiffs around when the jury want some soft drinks.
"He took the order, went down to the vending machine, buys them himself and brings them to the jury like a waiter," says Payne. "He was so unassuming."
Five weeks ago, Pickford was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. "It took him very quickly," says Ann Pickford.
"Judge Pickford was a gentleman and he knew the law," says Albemarle Sheriff Chip Harding, who was an investigator on the Barker case. "He wasn't a police officers' judge or a defendants' judge. He was right down the middle.
"If I had to pick six people I most admire," continues Harding, "he's one."