Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on December 20, 1991.
Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney Joseph D. Morrissey and lawyer David P. Baugh, two of the area's most combative, irreverent and high-profile courtroom personalities, were ruled in contempt of court yesterday after coming to blows in the middle of a drug trial.
The brawl, one of the most extraordinary events to occur at the John Marshall Courts Building, followed a heated and profane exchange of insults between the two men.
"He pushed me in the chest," said Baugh, who left the courtroom bleeding and with his glasses broken. "I grabbed him and held on and he hit me on the top of the head," "I was simply defending myself," Morrissey said.
The fight, which occurred in a third-floor hallway behind the courtroom of Richmond Circuit Court Judge Thomas N. Nance, led to a mistrial and the dismissal of the jury hearing the cocaine distribution charge that the two lawyers had been hotly contesting moments earlier.
As is often the case during the garden-variety assault trials Morrissey's office handles every day, the combatants gave starkly divergent accounts of yesterday's melee.
Morrissey said Baugh had been "baiting" him throughout the course of the trial. At one point, he said, Baugh loudly alleged that Morrissey was trying the case only to enhance his political stature.
Baugh, Morrissey said, continued the histrionics during a conference behind Nance's bench. "David," Morrissey said he whispered, "if you keep this up I'll knock your ass into 1992."
Nance, both men agreed, then suggested a hallway conference out of the jury's earshot, hoping the two would cool off and the trial could resume. It didn't work.
In the hall, Morrissey said, he turned to Baugh and said, "You're a joke," at which point, he said, Baugh grabbed him by the lapels with both hands, called him a "punk faggot" and shoved him toward one of the black glass windows that encase the courts building.
Morrissey fought back.
"I just planted myself and lit into him," Morrissey said. "I didn't initiate it. I simply retaliated, and I retaliated with everything I had."
Morrissey, who works out regularly and weighs in at a trim 158 lbs., said he caught Baugh with a right, a left and another right, all of which landed on the defense attorney's face. Morrissey survived the imbroglio virtually unscathed.
Baugh, meanwhile, claims Morrissey shoved him first. He agreed that the oral exchanges between the two in the courtroom had been getting out of hand, but said it was Morrissey who did most of the goading.
"We were doing battle . . . and we went behind the bench and Joe threatened on the record to whip (me)," Baugh said. "I didn't know Joe's hold on his masculinity was so precarious."
Once in the hallway, Baugh said, Morrissey grew more and more agitated
-- then started the fight. Baugh said his glasses were broken and he was cut on his head. He did not know yesterday afternoon whether his wound would require stitches.
Nance, court reporter H. Keith Crane and two Richmond sheriff's deputies witnessed at least part of the battle. Nance declined to comment, and Crane said he missed seeing who threw the first blow.
"It all happened so fast," Crane said.
Both deputies arrived in the middle of the fight, said Capt. Lloyd Woods of the Richmond Sheriff's Department. "I don't think they saw the beginning of it," he said.
Morrissey and Baugh said they would not seek charges against each other. Nance has scheduled a hearing for Jan. 8 concerning his contempt of court finding.
Both men, reached soon after the incident, were, if not chuckling about it, treating it far less seriously than many of their dumbfounded colleagues. Asked if he was worried about repercussions from the brawl, Morrissey said:
"Not in the slightest." Baugh and Morrissey were both spotted later at a Christmas party given by high-profile defense lawyer Michael Morchower.
News of the altercation swept the area legal community yesterday afternoon. Lawyers contacted for comment yesterday said they were shocked by the incident, but few were surprised at who the participants were.
"It was so hot, I was trying a case in Henrico and someone came up and whispered about it to me," said attorney Christopher Collins.
Collins jokingly suggested he was looking for Don King's telephone number to promote a rematch.
Few other lawyers would comment on the record, but virtually all said that if they had to pick two colleagues they thought would wind up duking it out, Baugh and Morrissey would be at the top of the list.
And while Morrissey may have landed the punches, the consensus among friends and colleagues of both seemed to be that Morrissey has the most to lose.
"The top law enforcement officer in the city can't be doing this," one lawyer said. "Joe just doesn't understand that."
Said Collins: "Joe probably dealt his political career a more severe blow than he did David Baugh."
MORE ON MORRISSEY
Events in Joseph D. Morrissey's prosecutorial career:
May 1989: Wins Democratic nomination for Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney, snatching the title from 16-year incumbent Aubrey M. Davis Jr.
November 1989: Takes 39 percent of the vote in a four-way election.
July 1990: Virginia State Bar orders Morrissey to attend an ethics course after a former client complains that a personal injury suit was mishandled.
September 1990: Virginia State Bar committee clears Morrissey of seven allegations that he says concerned his conduct as a defense lawyer and commonwealth's attorney-elect.
July 1991: He is convicted of contempt in Richmond General District Court, fined $50 and sentenced to 10 days in jail after writing a critical letter to a substitute judge.
August 1991: Appeal in contempt case denied by Bedford County Circuit Court after Richmond judges excused themselves. Half his jail time suspended. November 1991: Loses bid for a Circuit Court sanction of a lawyer who called him a "scumbag."<</p>
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