In the eight years that Washington and Lee alumnus Roscoe B. Stephenson Jr. served as judge of the Alleghany County Circuit Court, his decisions were never reversed. That is surely one of the reasons that Stephenson was elevated to the Virginia Supreme Court in 1981. He served as a justice for 16 years before retiring in 1997 at the age of 75.
Justice Stephenson died Tuesday in Covington, Va. He was 89.
A native of Alleghany County, he had attended the public schools there and, following a year in the Army, entered W&L, receiving his B.A. in 1943 and his J.D. in 1947 from the School of Law. Known as “Rocky,” Stephenson began in partnership with his father in Covington and served as commonwealth’s attorney for Alleghany County for eight years before returning to private practice. He was elected as a judge to the 25th Judicial Circuit of Virginia in 1973 and subsequently to the Virginia Supreme Court.
Among the decisions he wrote for the court were ones upholding the state’s cap on awards in medical malpractice cases and affirming the use of DNA evidence in the case of Timothy W. Spencer. The 1989 Spencer case became the first in which a man was sentenced to death based largely on DNA evidence. Known as “the Southside Strangler,” he had been convicted of raping and strangling four women over 11 weeks in 1987. There were no surviving victims, no fingerprints, no confession. Then DNA tests linked the crime scenes with Spencer. He was executed in April 1994.
In the Richmond Times-Dispatch story on Stephenson’s death, Justice Harry L. Carrico, a former chief justice, said: “He was a wonderful person, he was a wonderful judge, he was a highly ethical person and highly caring person and just an all-around wonderful human being.”
When Stephenson retired in 1997, he stayed on as a senior justice. His departure led to a deadlock in the General Assembly about his successor, who was ultimately appointed by then-Gov. George Allen. The seat was filled by Justice Cynthia Kinser, who is now the court’s chief justice.
A funeral will be held Friday in Covington. Survivors include Roscoe B. Stephenson III, a member of the W&L Law Class of 1981.