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He used to be lounge singer, now he’s gotten 3 men pardoned

December 9, 2018

NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — Step into a local nightclub in the 1970s or ’80s, and chances are you’d see John Cog.

He was the guy just beyond the dance floor, behind the keyboards and amplifiers.

He’d play the organ, the electric harpsichord, the castanets — even a slide whistle and kazoo — sometimes dressed in a cowboy hat or Viking helmet.

A Virginian-Pilot columnist once described him as a “blitzkrieg” of a performer, who looked like “Jerry Lewis impersonating a Beatle.”

He was, the columnist wrote, “pound-for-pound, the zaniest, most versatile, and raucously gifted entertainer to practice musical madness here since the lava cooled.”

It might be hard to imagine, then, who John Coggeshall is today: a heavyweight criminal defense attorney who, earlier this year, got three clients pardoned by Virginia’s governor.

For 20 years, Coggeshall was a mainstay of the Hampton Roads night lounge scene, performing his own comedy songs as a one-man act.

But in the mid-’90s, he forged an unlikely path from performer to attorney, passing the state bar exam without ever having gone to law school.

In recent years, Coggeshall has become a resident authority of a criminal justice niche — pardon petitions — garnering national attention for his work. Coggeshall often focuses on clients whose outsized sentences don’t match the crime, he says.

Like Travion Blount, who as a teen received six life sentences plus 118 years for a robbery at a Norfolk house party in which no one was seriously injured and no shots were fired.

Or Lenny Singleton, sentenced to two life terms plus 110 years in prison for a week-long, grab-and-dash robbery spree in which he made off with less than $550.

The petitions Coggeshall writes — more than 100 pages apiece — are a last-ditch effort: a final plea to the governor after all avenues and appeals within the judicial system have been exhausted.

Robert Hall, an attorney in northern Virginia, said there’s a tendency to denigrate the value of a human life based on a single episode, or a series of episodes — locking a person away and forgetting about them. Coggeshall, he said, is their advocate.

Said Hall: “John’s just a damn good lawyer who does what we would hope more lawyers would do, and take these very difficult cases for people who have otherwise been rendered invisible by the criminal justice system and give them a second chance.”

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It was a two-week gig that brought Coggeshall to Hampton Roads in 1975.

The Cabaret Restaurant and Lounge on Norview Avenue in Norfolk hired him to perform his one-man act.

A Connecticut native, Coggeshall went to the University of North Carolina School of the Arts and performed in the American College Theater Festival at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. His first job out of school: touring the country as a resident actor and pianist with the Agnes de Mille Heritage Dance Theater.

In Norfolk, the Cabaret kept re-hiring him, so Coggeshall moved from Manhattan and stayed. After that, he started playing five to six nights a week at venue called the Crow’s Nest and later branched out to the hotel lounge scene, where he spent most of his entertainment career.

“I enjoyed that one-man, nightclub life,” said Coggeshall, now 67.

In the late 1960s, Michael Grey was stationed with the Navy in Connecticut when he first saw Coggeshall perform with his band, The Pentagons. An attorney in Hampton Roads a decade later, Grey once again saw Coggeshall — entertaining the crowd at a bar in the same building as Grey’s law office.

It wasn’t until the two were sitting next to one another in court years later that Grey made the connection between Coggeshall the lawyer and John Cog the performer. They’ve been friends ever since.

“He had a great act for a bar,” Grey said.

Coggeshall has composed the lyrics and songs for a musical — “Brother John Reborn!” — and several CDs of his own music, which he records in a studio at his Norfolk law office.

Back in his lounge days, he pulled stunts, like performing for 15 hours straight with no break. Or he’d call on the audience to slide across the dance floor in wheeled chairs for a piece called “Do the chair!”

“He bounces, pounds, and jumps behind the keyboards as though he has five minutes before the world catches fire,” Pilot columnist Lawrence Maddry wrote in the mid-’70s. “Cog is for hundreds of nightly followers — from grannies in tennis sneakers to teenagers — what’s happening.”

Coggeshall would like to say he became a lawyer because of a sense of higher calling, but for him, it was a practical decision.

The nightclub and lounge scene was drying up, he said.

“Somebody had told me that in the Commonwealth of Virginia, if you have a four-year college degree in anything, you can become a lawyer without ever going to law school,” he said.

“Well, I did have a four-year bachelor’s degree. In drama.”

Virginia is one of only a few states to offer a “law reader” program, which allows participants to study under the guidance of a supervising attorney as an alternative to law school. Few succeed. From February 2000 to July 2013, the state bar pass rate for law readers in Virginia was 21 percent — compared to 68 percent overall, according to the Virginia Board of Bar Examiners’ website.

It took Coggeshall a year and a half to find a law firm to sponsor him.

As he remembers it, he was performing at Reggie’s Pub in the old Waterside one night when attorneys Carrollyn and Edward Leslie Cox left their card in his hat.

They’d go on to sponsor him, Coggeshall studying law during the day and performing his act at night, he said. In the mid-’90s, he’d pass the state bar on his first try.

“It was the nicest thing strangers have ever done for me,” Coggeshall said.

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Early in his law career, Coggeshall had some built-in clientele from his nightclub days and handled domestic relations and minor criminal cases.

He also began representing indigent clients as a court-appointed attorney, which remains the bulk of his practice today.

It’s how he came to represent Travion Blount, who was 15 when he held up a Norfolk house party with two 18-year-olds.

Unlike his co-defendants, Blount turned down a plea deal that would have resulted in a much lighter sentence and went to trial, where jurors convicted him of 49 felonies.

In 2014, Gov. Bob McDonnell granted Blount a partial pardon, reducing his sentence from more than six life terms to 40 years. But the sentence still bothered Coggeshall: Blount’s co-defendants got 13 and 10 years in prison. He filed another pardon petition with Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

It was because of Blount’s case, and the national attention it garnered, that Coggeshall began hearing from others asking for help with pardon petitions.

Lenny Singleton was in a state prison when a fellow inmate called him into the laundry room to show him a news article about Blount and Coggeshall. He called his now-wife, Vandy, and asked her to reach out.

“He was the only lawyer out of many that I called who was willing to help,” Vandy Singleton said. With Coggeshall, Singleton said, she felt heard.

“Cog really goes out of his way to ensure that justice is being served,” she said.

In the mid-1990s, fueled by a crack cocaine addiction, Lenny Singleton committed a string of eight grab-and-dash robberies over seven days. He was unarmed in all but one, in which he waved a table knife.

Singleton had pleaded guilty in the hope of receiving drug treatment. In Virginia Beach, a judge sentenced him to serve 10 years for two of the robberies. But a Norfolk judge sentenced him to two life terms, plus 100 years, for the rest. Guidelines had recommended 11 to 18 years, according to Singleton’s pardon petition.

Coggeshall said he’s “extremely, extremely selective” about which cases he takes on, and unlike his court-appointed work, clients pay him for his work on pardon petitions.

In many ways, Singleton fit what Coggeshall looks for in a case: He was remorseful and had been rehabilitated in prison, overcoming drug addiction and seeking out every opportunity available to him behind bars.

Coggeshall gravitates toward cases where — in a state that abolished parole in the ’90s — the sentence doesn’t seem to match the offense, he said.

“There are inmates in there who kind of are overly sentenced,” Coggeshall said. “Those are the kind of people that we like.”

Coggeshall has unsuccessfully run for office several times in his career: for a state House seat as an independent in 2005; for Norfolk commonwealth’s attorney as a Republican in 2009; and in the Republican primary for then-Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam’s vacated state Senate seat in 2013.

That experience may explain, in part, his success with pardon petitions. They’re written to the governor after all options within the legal system have run out. Coggeshall can relate to what a politician in Richmond might want to read.

Hall, the attorney who has followed Coggeshall’s work, said his petitions are deeply detailed and carefully constructed: “John’s very good at articulating the unfairness of what’s happened.”

With exhibits, certificates, photos and letters, Coggeshall lays out the person’s life, their crimes and their achievements behind bars.

In Singleton’s petition, Coggeshall included more than a dozen letters of support — including one from a friend whose car he took to procure drugs during his addiction in the 1990s.

“Today, and for the past 20 years, Leonard Singleton has been a model prisoner in Virginia’s correctional system: admirably and completely conquering his addiction, furthering his education, and firmly establishing himself as a mentor and role model for hundreds of younger inmates,” Coggeshall wrote. ” . . . Leonard L. Singleton has paid his debt to society.

“He does not deserve to die in prison.”

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In January, about two years after submitting Singleton’s petition, Coggeshall got word that McAuliffe had pardoned him.

And Blount.

And a third man Coggeshall represented, Travis Hassan May.

When Singleton was released in June from St. Brides Correctional Center — after 23 years in prison — his wife and Coggeshall were outside waiting for him.

“I can’t think of a more deserving person. I really, really can’t,” Coggeshall said at the time.

Since working on Singleton’s case, Coggeshall hired Vandy Singleton to assist with pardon petitions. She gathers initial information from potential clients and shares the story of her husband. She can relate to those calling for help for their loved ones: She’s been in their shoes.

Her help comes at the right time. Coggeshall said he’s been inundated with requests — as many as 300 — from families and inmates seeking assistance with pardon petitions. He’s got several in the works.

“I feel hopeful,” Vandy Singleton said of the pending petitions. “Cog takes cases because he believes there might be something there.”

Coggeshall doesn’t perform his one-man act anymore, but he still finds time to record songs and is working on a third CD.

He’s gotten new business cards, too, to reflect his latest work.

“PARDONS-CLEMENCY-COG,” they read.

“5 YEARS, 4 EXECUTIVE PARDONS, TIME FOR MORE.”

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Information from: The Virginian-Pilot, http://pilotonline.com

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