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Frank W. Dunham Jr., 64; federal public defender in high-profile terrorism cases

November 08, 2006|From the Washington Post

Frank W. Dunham Jr., who fought for Zacarias Moussaoui and other well-known terrorism suspects as the first federal public defender in Alexandria, Va., died Friday of brain cancer at his Alexandria home. He was 64.

A longtime northern Virginia lawyer and former prosecutor, Dunham created the public defender's office virtually by himself in 2001. One of his first clients was Moussaoui, the only person charged in a U.S. courtroom in the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, Dunham zealously battled the government on behalf of the Al Qaeda member, who despised his attorneys. Moussaoui eventually pleaded guilty, but only after Dunham and his team tied up the case in court for several years.

Edward B. MacMahon Jr., one of Dunham's co-counsels, said, "His work on the Moussaoui case was outstanding" but was overshadowed by what he did for "enemy combatant" Yaser Esam Hamdi.

Dunham argued the case of Hamdi, a U.S. citizen held as a combatant by the military, before the U.S. Supreme Court. The case produced a decision that upheld the government's power to detain Hamdi but said he could challenge that detention in U.S. courts. Hamdi was released and flown to Saudi Arabia in 2004.

The high-profile cases of the last few years capped a colorful legal career in which Dunham prosecuted espionage and fraud defendants and represented clients, including W. Mark Felt, identified last year as the confidential source known as Deep Throat who was key to the Washington Post's coverage of the Watergate scandal.

Felt, the FBI's second-ranking official at the time of the 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate, went on trial in 1980 with another former FBI official. They were charged with illegally authorizing agents to break into homes without warrants in search of suspects in bombings carried out to protest the Vietnam War. In one of history's strange footnotes, Dunham called former President Richard M. Nixon to testify on behalf of Felt, the man who helped force Nixon's resignation.

Dunham retired in November 2005, citing the effects of his illness and a desire to spend more time with his family.

Dunham was born in Philadelphia and graduated from Virginia Tech in 1964 with a degree in naval architecture. At Catholic University of America, he became the first law student to graduate No. 1 in his class while attending school at night.

After clerking for a federal judge, Dunham was an assistant U.S. attorney in Alexandria from 1971 to 1978, rising to the No. 2 position in the office. He went into private practice before taking the public defender's job.

He is survived by his wife, Elinor "Ellie" Dunham; two sons; a brother; and a grandson.

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