PRINCETON — Members of Mercer County’s legal community shared memories Monday of a retired prosecuting attorney and circuit court judge who mentored many of them and became a legend to them all.
David Wesley Knight, 85, of Princeton passed away Saturday. A native of Mercer County, he was an attorney in private practice for several years before being elected as Mercer County’s prosecuting attorney. He served in that office for 21 years before Gov. Gaston Caperton appointed him as a circuit court judge. Knight served on the bench for 12 years and later served as a senior status judge who filled the bench when needed in West Virginia’s courts.
For many in the local legal profession, Knight was an inspiration.
“Let me tell you, David Knight was a legal giant,” Circuit Court Judge William Sadler said. “He was almost a larger-than-life figure in Mercer County. I grew up in Mercer County, and at a somewhat young age, I wanted to be an attorney.”
Sadler said that he read stories in the Bluefield Daily Telegraph about Knight’s work in court. These accounts, written by the late Barbara Hawkins, helped him decide on a career with the law.
“He became an almost mythological figure in my eyes and an inspiration to pursue a legal career,” Sadler said.
Knight served as an example both as a prosecutor and a judge, Sadler added.
“He was well known for his cross examinations and his courtroom theatrics,” he said. “We’ve lost a legend.”
Circuit Court Judge Derek Swope also worked with Knight.
“I would say that with his passing, we lost one of the best if not the best public servant Mercer County and the state of West Virginia ever had,” Swope said. “He was a formidable prosecutor, but he also had one of the most innate senses of fairness as anyone I’ve ever known. He was obviously a truly outstanding trial lawyer, but he was also one of the most compassionate people I have ever known in my life.”
Knight brought his diligence and fairness with him when he became a judge, Swope said.
“He was really one of those people who taught me the most about trials and courtroom work as well as the work you need to go into. For every hour you spend in court, you spend many more outside getting ready,” Swope said.
Knight also had a photographic memory that helped him recall the contents of police reports regardless of their length and complexity. He was also known for his humor and his devotion to his family.
“He was just an all-around excellent human being,” Swope stated. “ He was also a very spiritual person. He didn’t wear his faith on his sleeve, but he had a deep abiding faith in God and in Jesus.”
Circuit Court Judge Mark Wills recalled Knight both as a prosecuting attorney and a judge.
“He was a great human being, a great prosecuting attorney,” Wills said. “When I practiced law, I always dreaded going up against him. He was so good when he tried criminal cases. He would give his closing argument, then he would go out in the hallway while the defense was presenting their closing argument. He had so much confidence in his ability. He was great, and he was a great judge as well. I’m going to miss him. He had a great sense of humor, and he was a great prosecutor. He was always fair and honest. He was an excellent attorney, gentleman, and a great human being.”
Attorney John Feuchtenberger of Bluefield worked with Knight the prosecuting attorney and the judge.
“He was brilliant. One thing he enjoyed doing was speaking with a hill country accent. I’m convinced that he practiced it,” Feuchtenberger said. “I think he was one of the most brilliant attorneys I’ve ever worked with or practiced in front of when he was a judge.”
Knight could tell the difference between a defendant “who was truly wicked” and one who had made a poor decision, he added.
“He was sympathetic with the foolish and severe with the criminally minded,” Feuchtenberger said.
Every attorney who worked with David Knight has a favorite story about him. Knight was known for his closing arguments.
“He would take his opponent’s measure and zero in on a perceived opening – when I was a young lawyer, delivering a closing argument, he would remind the jury that I was a member of the Summit Players and acting out my client’s story. He only quit when I began responding that he was a founding member of the Summit Players,” Feuchtenberger said.
Knight could deliver “zingers” as a judge, too, he added.
“In a trial where the residency of a person in a case was in question, I grandly produced in evidence a certified Swiss police residency permit showing that the guy lived in Switzerland rather than Bluefield as was claimed,” Feuchtenberger said. “Judge Knight reviewed it and said ‘I can’t read this--it’s not in English.’ I responded ‘Your Honor, I read and write the French language, and can translate it for you.’ He narrowed his eyes, leaned over the bench, and said, ‘Feuchtenberger, I don’t believe you in English.’ We settled that one.”
“He was also a deeply religious man. I think of the phrase in the Old Testament: A mighty oak has fallen in Israel,” Feuchtenberger concluded.
— Contact Greg Jordan at firstname.lastname@example.org