The jurors were looking at her when they filed into court. That, Dovey Johnson Roundtree knew, could have immense significance for her client, a feebleminded day laborer accused of one of the most sensational murders of the mid-20th century.
Little had augured well for that client, Raymond Crump Jr., during his eight-day trial in United States District Court in Washington: Mr. Crump, who had been found near the crime scene, was black and poor. The victim was white, glamorous and supremely well connected. The country, in the summer of 1965, seethed with racial tension amid the surging civil rights movement.
Federal prosecutors had amassed a welter of circumstantial evidence — including 27 witnesses and more than 50 exhibits — to argue that on Oct. 12, 1964, Mr. Crump had carried out the execution-style shooting of Mary Pinchot Meyer, a Washington socialite said to have been a former lover of President John F. Kennedy.
By contrast, Ms. Roundtree, who died on Monday at 104, had chosen to present just three witnesses and a single exhibit to the jury, which comprised men and women, blacks and whites. Her closing argument was only 20 minutes long.
Now, on July 30, 1965, the jury, having deliberated, was back. The court clerk handed the verdict slip to the judge, Howard F. Corcoran. For most observers, inside the courtroom and out, conviction — and an accompanying death sentence — was a foregone conclusion.
“Members of the jury,” Judge Corcoran said. “We have your verdict, which states that you find the defendant, Ray Crump Jr., not guilty.”
Ms. Roundtree’s defense, which hinged partly on two forensic masterstrokes, made her reputation as a litigator of acuity, concision and steel who could win even the most hopeless trials. And this in a case for which she had received a fee of one dollar.
“As a woman, and as a woman of color in an age when black lawyers had to leave the courthouse to use the bathrooms, she dared to practice before the bar of justice and was unflinching,” Katie McCabe, the co-author of Ms. Roundtree’s memoir, “Justice Older Than the Law,” said in an interview for this obituary in 2016. “She was a one-woman Legal Aid Society before people used that term.”
Officer, Lawyer, Minister
Ms. Roundtree’s victory in the Crump case was not her first noteworthy accomplishment, and it was by no means her last. Born to a family of slender means in the Jim Crow South, Ms. Roundtree — or the Rev. Dovey Johnson Roundtree, as she was long formally known — was instrumental in winning a spate of advances for blacks and women in midcentury America, blazing trails in the military, the legal profession and the ministry.
As an inaugural member of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (later the Women’s Army Corps), she became, in 1942, one of the first women of any race to be commissioned an Army officer. Attaining the rank of captain, she personally recruited scores of African-American women for wartime Army service.
As a Washington lawyer, she helped secure a landmark ban on racial segregation in interstate bus travel in a case that originated in 1952 — three years before Rosa Parks refused to yield her seat in Montgomery, Ala.
As a cleric, Ms. Roundtree was one of the first women to be ordained a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
In 2009, in a statement honoring the publication of “Justice Older Than the Law,” the first lady, Michelle Obama, said, “As an Army veteran, lawyer and minister, Ms. Roundtree set a new path for the many women who have followed her and proved once again that the vision and perseverance of a single individual can help to turn the tides of history.”
Yet for all her perseverance, and all her prowess, Ms. Roundtree remained, by temperament, choice and political circumstance, comparatively unknown.
“One has to start with the fact — and I think it’s an acknowledged fact — that the civil rights movement was notoriously sexist,” Ms. McCabe said in 2016. “There were many men who did not appreciate being ground up into hamburger meat by Dovey Roundtree. There are many, many white lawyers — male — in Washington who were humiliated by having been beaten by a black woman. And I think that played out in a number of ways. And one of those ways has been a diminution in the recognition that I think her accomplishments merit.”