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NACDL - National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers
Mar 29, 2022

NACDL Mourns Loss of Former Board Member John Kenneth Zwerling (“JZ”)

Washington, DC (March 29, 2022) – John Kenneth Zwerling ("JZ") passed away in the early morning hours of Sunday, March 27, 2022. For those that knew John, and for the criminal defense bar, this is a deep loss. Though John had been battling leukemia since the summer of 2021, consistent with his lifelong mission and dedication as a defense lawyer, he continued to argue cases persuasively and as recently as two weeks ago. His beloved wife of 48 years, Pat West, was with him on his final day.

John was a Dean of the criminal defense bar in Alexandria, Virginia, and then expanded his "Deanship" to include Charlottesville when he relocated his residence, maintaining offices in both cities. In March 2019, the Alexandria Bar Association honored John for his lifetime achievement of "Fifty years of Service to Justice as a Defense Attorney."

"For 50 years, no client or lawyer could have a better advocate or friend than John Zwerling. John was the best of the best, as a lawyer and as a person. John was an extraordinarily gifted strategist and warrior both in and out of the courtroom. His insightful thinking, creativity, and confidence led to extraordinary results. John was the quarterback. His humanity enveloped his work, and his bear hugs were warm, memorable and like no other. Like so much of John’s life, he gave his hugs generously, and often with a loving chuckle to boot. John generously gave of his time and skill to the bar, the bench, other lawyers, and NACDL. Of great pride to him was his ability to help other lawyers, as a mentor, of which there were countless, and to assist and represent other lawyers sometimes in their hour of greatest of need," said NACDL Past President and longtime friend Ted Simon.

"John was a pure criminal defense lawyer, whose distrust of the Government was born in the anti-Vietnam War experiences. In addition to all his other many accomplishments, and in addition to his being a gentle and thoughtful colleague and friend, he was a cornerstone of the NACDL Lawyers’ Assistance Strike Force who for decades provided attorneys in need all over the 4th Circuit with wise guidance and strong advocacy. He will be deeply missed," said NACDL Life Member Martin Weinberg.

The Hon. Lisa Kemler of the Circuit Court of Alexandria, a former partner of John’s for seventeen years, wrote, "John was one of a kind -- a wonderful friend and the best partner one could ask for who taught me so much about humanity and the practice of law. He loved facing down the awesome power of the government, was tireless in his defense of his clients, and got amazing results in cases that, in the hands of a less skilled advocate, would have been a disaster. Big-hearted and generous with his time, he delighted in mentoring young lawyers. So many of us have John to thank for where we are today."

NACDL Past President Nina Ginsberg, friend and former law partner of John’s for five years, said, "John was a giant, a brilliant lawyer who gave everything to his clients and to making a broken legal system a place where persons accused of crime were treated more fairly and with the dignity they deserved. As a young lawyer, John taught me to use the law as a weapon against the dehumanizing treatment our clients received in courtrooms, to think creatively, and to fight for what was right, no matter the odds. It was his special gift. One he shared with the lawyers who knew and loved him, and with lawyers in their times of need, when a guiding hand, his keen wit, and a warm heart made all the difference. John moved the scales of justice. He led by example and many followed. He raised me as a lawyer, he guided me through my career, and he was my friend. I will miss him dearly."

Chris Leibig, another friend and former law partner of John’s for eight years who was with him in court at John’s last argument, summed up, "During the last twenty years of his career, John Zwerling was a role model and mentor for a generation of former public defenders from Alexandria who ventured into private practice as defense attorneys. His devotion to developing real friendships with younger attorneys had a ripple effect on the depth and breadth of many, many careers, including mine. I will always be thankful to him for that. Most of all though, it's the friendship I'll miss."

John graduated from Tufts University and received his J.D. from the American University’s Washington College of Law in 1970. He was a two-term member of the NACDL Board of Directors and served as President of the Alexandria Bar Association (July 2001 – June 2002). John served in a variety of capacities for NACDL, most notably and characteristically as a stalwart and perennial core member of NACDL’s Lawyers’ Assistance Strike Force. He was the founding President of the Virginia College of Criminal Defense Attorneys and is a member of the New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (Founding Member), and the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Law (Legal Committee).

Ted Simon, Past President of NACDL and longtime friend of John, provides a longer tribute, here.


Kate Holden, NACDL Public Affairs and Communications Associate, (202) 465-7624 or kholden@nacdl.org

The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers is the preeminent organization advancing the mission of the criminal defense bar to ensure justice and due process for persons accused of crime or wrongdoing. A professional bar association founded in 1958, NACDL's many thousands of direct members in 28 countries – and 90 state, provincial and local affiliate organizations totaling up to 40,000 attorneys – include private criminal defense lawyers, public defenders, military defense counsel, law professors and judges committed to preserving fairness and promoting a rational and humane criminal legal system.

This article was syndicated from the NACDL website and originally appeared on:

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NACDL - National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers

Founded in 1958, NACDL is the largest organization for criminal defense lawyers fighting to preserve fairness within America's criminal justice system. The organization has more than 10,000 direct members including criminal defense attorneys in private practice, public defenders in state or federal court, U.S. military defense counsel, law professors and judges.