Chip Wright, former lawyer for dying row inmates, dies at 65


Temperatures bounce back to the 60s Thursday before returning to normal this weekend.

William H. “Chip” Wright Jr., a longtime Richmond lawyer who left an enduring mark in representing people sentenced to execution under Virginia’s now-abolished death penalty, died on Jan. 2 after a lengthy battle with effects of colon cancer.

Mr. Wright, 65, was a Petersburg native who donated more than 5,300 hours of free legal representation as an attorney for Hunton Andrews Kurth — a venerable Richmond law firm previously known as Hunton & Williams — mostly for people he felt had been wrongly convicted or poorly represented on capital murder charges and sentenced to death.

His most notable victory came in 1992, when then-Gov. L. Douglas Wilder commuted the death sentence of Herbert Bassette to life imprisonment for the 1979 murder of a 16-year-old gasoline station attendant who had been abducted in Richmond and killed in Henrico County.

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Mr. Wright continued to argue for Bassette’s innocence and pardon. However, he also devoted his pro bono services to other death row inmates whose guilt was unquestioned, but whom he felt had been treated unfairly in a system that often fell short of its ideal of equal representation of the law, especially for people who often were poor, uneducated and Black.

“Clemency should not be reserved only for the innocent,” he argued in 1992 on behalf of Edward P. Fitzgerald, who ultimately died in Virginia’s electric chair for the rape and murder of a woman in Chesterfield County in 1980. “Innocent people don’t require mercy.”

Richmond attorney Gerald Zerkin said Mr. Wright was one of a small circle of attorneys who represented prison inmates after their conviction in capital murder cases during an era when Virginia used the death penalty often and with ruthless efficiency.

“It was a machine,” said Zerkin, who called Mr. Wright’s death “crushing.”

“He did the best job he could against tremendous odds,” he said.

Mr. Wright took a break from the law firm for several years in the early 1990s to work as a staff attorney for the Virginia Capital Representation Resource Center, based in Charlottesville, which assists lawyers representing indigent death row inmates.

“He was obviously a very bright, talented guy, with a broad range of interests,” said Robert Lee, director of the center, who had worked as an investigator and staff attorney with Mr. Wright beginning in 1994.

“He was very committed to providing the very highest representation that Hunton would bring to their clients,” Lee said. “He didn’t see why they shouldn’t get the same respect and treatment.”

When Mr. Wright returned to the law firm in 1996, he continued to help the nonprofit organization and others on a pro bono basis.

The Mid Atlantic Innocence Project gave its “Defender of Innocence Award” in 2013 to him and other members of a legal team that had secured the release of a man who had been convicted of a 1991 murder in Newport News, based on the testimony of a dog-sniffing expert and a jailhouse informant who had testified in other cases.

Mr. Wright also provided free legal counsel to Richmond Waldorf School and served on its board of trustees.

He spent 33 years at Hunton, which he had joined in 1985 after receiving his law degree from the College of William & Mary. He had received his undergraduate degree from the University of Virginia in 1982.

His litigation practice included cases in trial and appellate courts involving commercial contract disputes, business torts, and products liability claims. He worked with clients doing business with American Indian tribes and the application of gaming statutes to online commerce.

Mr. Wright was known at the firm for what partner Kelly Faglioni called his “keen analysis and sharp, efficient writing style,” which earned him the “annual writing award” from the litigation team for the best legal brief or memorandum in 2014.

His colleagues also marveled at his breadth of knowledge, fed by his voracious reading. His hobbies were legend, including woodworking, raising chickens, making cheese, beer and other edibles.

An avid cyclist, he owned multiple bikes, and also participated in marathons. He recounted how he had finished one by focusing on a runner who had literally dressed as a clown, vowing, “I can beat that clown.”

A diehard UVA basketball fan, Mr. Wright brought his analytical skills to sports, often serving as the law firm’s commissioner for fantasy sports and simulation-sports leagues.

Mr. Wright is survived by a son, Lincoln, of Tampa, Fla.; his former wife, Laura LaFay, of Richmond; his father, William H. Wright Sr., of Lexington; two brothers, Watson, of Palm Beach, Fla., and Brook, of Henrico. He was preceded in death by his mother, Jane Aldhizer Wright, of Lexington.

Arrangements for a memorial service are pending. Richmond Coach and Cremation Service will post the details when available on its website.