They needed what is called “the big courtroom” at the old courthouse in Pascagoula to say goodbye to Tony Lawrence, the longest-service district attorney for Jackson, George and Greene County.
The legal community from those three counties and beyond, his friends and his family filled the benches. Lawrence has been that rare district attorney as comfortable in the courtroom as he is behind a desk, more prosecutor than politician.
Lawrence is leaving the district attorney’s office after 15 years to join the Mississippi Court of Appeals in January, having won an election to the seat.
He will be remembered as a district attorney willing to take on political cases that could have threatened his career, a prosecutor who excelled in court, and a boss who taught his staff that justice was their goal.
Chancery Court Judge Jaye Bradley said Lawrence is, at heart, a public servant who is a great leader, organizer and communicator.
“He’s tried some really hard cases,” she said, “ . . . but he has never been driven by politics. He has been motivated by justice.”
Early in his career, Lawrence worked as a criminal defense lawyer alongside David Ishee, now a Mississippi Supreme Court judge.
Ishee told the crowd that the two attorneys were the court-appointed defenders of Stephen McGilberry, who as a teenager killed his family with a baseball bat.
As McGilberry’s trial drew near, the lawyers caught wind of a rumor that McGilberry was planning his escape should he be convicted. He was going to stab Ishee with a pen, then crash through a window. Ishee is comforted to know their former client is serving life in prison without possibility of parole.
Under Lawrence, the district attorney’s office has handled 42,000 cases, including more than 120 homicides that have been resolved. His office also has emphasized child-abuse cases, especially the sexual abuse of minors.
Lawrence is quick to credit his staff, saying Assistant District Attorney Cherie Wade has taken the lead on many homicide prosecutions, while Angel Myers McIlrath, who will take over as district attorney in January, has prosecuted many child abusers.
Lawrence has for many years kept a famous quote, from 18th-century Irish statesman Edmund Burke, framed in his office: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
Jaye Bradley brought up the quote, concluding: “He’s taken a stand when somebody needed to stand up.”