First Coast Legal Legend William “Bill” Sheppard of Sheppard, White, Kachergus & DeMaggio P.A passed away on April 9, 2022 at his home, surrounded by his family and friends.
William J. Sheppard (1941-2022), a board-certified criminal trial lawyer, established a reputation as a preeminent criminal defense, civil rights, and appellate attorney during his over 50 years of practicing law by committing both himself and his practice to his client’s cases.
Both icon and iconoclast, Sheppard was known for representing the famous, the infamous, and the unknown alike. Throughout his career, he has fought at every level of the judicial system for individuals’ protection against violations of their rights, whether by searches, internet or other electronic surveillance, restrictions on freedoms of speech and religion, or violations of the constitutional rights of the incarcerated and accused. He has litigated virtually every type of criminal case, from death penalty cases to complex white-collar defense.
“Even though there are more and more lawyers—certainly more lawyers in Florida—there are fewer Bill Sheppards, and there is more of a need to have them,” says Jim Kowalski, president & CEO of Jacksonville Area Legal Aid. “He is already standing out in his absence. They don’t hand out backbones when you get your bar results, and that’s just what Bill was about.”
After serving as a First Lieutenant in the U.S. Army in Korea, Sheppard graduated from the University of Florida College of Law, where he served as executive editor of the Florida Law Review.
“In the U.S. Army, Bill oversaw the first surface-to-surface nuclear warhead installed in Korea,” says his wife, Betsy White. “His military service later informed his legal career, much of which he spent representing veterans and traveling across the country to train other lawyers how to represent combat veterans.”
Sheppard began his legal career in the fields of real estate and banking, before founding his own firm, which he dedicated to the pursuit of criminal defense and civil rights advocacy.
Past Florida Bar President Hank Coxe knew Sheppard since starting as a prosecutor in 1974. “When we were adversaries, Sheppard was an extremely effective, monumental pain in my ass,” Coxe says. “Winning did not come often. But when working with him, you knew you stood beside the best.”
Sheppard litigated Florida’s landmark statewide jail and prison conditions case on behalf of inmates in the county, municipal jails, and state prisons in Florida, producing substantial improvements to the provision of adequate care for those in custody. He also established himself as a distinguished criminal defense lawyer, having litigated countless constitutional issues on behalf of his criminally accused clients. From issues relating to the Fourth Amendment to questions litigated under the Fourteenth Amendment, Sheppard’s knowledge of the law was encyclopedic. To witness Sheppard’s impact on the law, one needs to look no further than his nearly 400 published opinions.
His pursuit of the vindication of his clients’ rights resulted in his having argued before the U.S. Supreme Court on three different occasions, including in Doggett v. United States, 505 U.S. 647 (1992), which established that a delay between indictment and arrest can violate the constitutional right to a speedy trial. Because of such accomplishments, Sheppard was awarded the Lawyer of the Year in White-Collar Criminal Defense, Non-White Collar Criminal Defense, and Employment Law in 2010, 2012, and 2014 respectively. Further, he was a Master of the Bench Emeritus in the Chester Bedell Inn of Court and a Fellow in the American College of Trial Lawyers.
Sheppard’s accomplishments were further recognized by his appointments to membership on the Florida Governor’s Advisory Committee on Corrections, the Middle District of Florida Civil Justice Reform Act Commission, and a term as chair for the Judicial Nominating Commission for the Fourth Judicial Circuit of Florida. Additionally, Sheppard was recognized by his receipt of several awards including the Nelson Poynter Civil Liberties Award from the American Civil Liberties Union on two occasions.
He received the Florida Bar Foundation Medal of Honor, which is the highest honor bestowed upon a lawyer by the legal profession in Florida, and the Tobias Simon Pro Bono Award, which is given annually by the Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court to the attorney in Florida who has given the most outstanding pro bono service, the Selig I. Goldin Memorial Award, which is presented annually by the Florida Bar criminal law section for making a significant contribution to the criminal justice system of the State of Florida, and the Steven M. Goldstein Criminal Justice Award, the highest honor awarded by the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
Sheppard also received the Distinguished Service Award presented by the National Federation of the Blind, the Civil and Human Rights award from the International Association of Official Human Rights Agencies, the Mary L. Singleton Justice, Peace, and Social Harmony Memorial Award, and the Florida Bar President’s Pro Bono Service Award. Recently, he was the recipient of the First Coast Coalition’s Humanitarian Award, which recognized Sheppard’s support and ingenuity in the civil rights involvement.
In 2015, Sheppard received the Henry Lee Adams, Jr. Diversity Trailblazer Award presented by the Jacksonville Bar Association Diversity Committee. This award is given to those who show outstanding leadership for diversity and inclusion efforts. Sheppard was very proud to have received this award, named after one of his former law partners.
Sheppard served on the board of Southern Legal Counsel, a statewide nonprofit law firm that pursues civil rights impact litigation, for the last year. He was a passionate supporter of SLC’s representation of those with little voice or power against governmental agencies and corporate interests. Jodi Siegel, executive director of SLC, said, “He had so much experience and wisdom to share. He loved listening to our clients’ stories and successes and offering strategies to overcome various obstacles.”
“Most folks do not understand the role that lawyers like Bill play in our community, in changing the landscape of the world from the vantage point of a courtroom,” says Kowalski. “He was a lawyer unafraid. He was not intimidated. He was prepared. And he simply would wade into battle as a lawyer using all those gifts. And that’s what stands out from his long body of work here locally.”