Longtime defense attorney Cliff Woodards dies in crash with police SUV

Detroit — A defense attorney killed early Monday after a crash with a Detroit police SUV was a colorful character, steeped in the law and attached to the city.

"He could bring joy to a courtroom" with his arguments and colorful attire, said Lillian Diallo, partner at the Legal Warriors law firm in Detroit and vice president of the Wayne County Bar Association, of Cliff Woodards II.

Police Chief James Craig said his department's Fatal Squad will investigate the collision. The probe will be reviewed by the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office, which could result in consideration of criminal charges, he said.

Woodards II, 58, was killed about 1 a.m. Monday when a Detroit Police Department vehicle responding to an emergency request for backup and traveling at a high rate of speed struck his Lexus IS 250 at the Interstate 96 Service Drive and West Chicago. 

Craig said a police Ford Explorer was running with its lights and sirens on as it exited the freeway at 59 miles per hour. It slowed to about 47 miles per hour when it reached the intersection before striking Woodards' vehicle, which was southbound on West Chicago, the chief said during a news conference. 

Cliff Woodards II

Craig told reporters that he is troubled by the inability of the officers to slow the vehicle down to a safe distance to come to a complete stop.

"This is a very tragic situation. This should not have happened," Craig said. "Officers know when they approach intersections with a stop sign or red traffic signal they must proceed with the utmost caution. It may mean coming to a complete stop, it may mean slowing the vehicle down to a point where you can determine it's safe to proceed. It appears in this instance that didn't happen. So I have some deep concerns."

The chief said Woodards' speed was "not excessive," and clocked in at 32 miles per hour at the time of the crash.

Woodards was pronounced dead at a local hospital. Two officers from the department's 4th Precinct were treated and released from a hospital. The driver, Craig said, will be on leave during the investigation.

Friends and colleagues shared their shock and grief on social media Monday with the news of Woodards' passing.

Woodards had attended a Super Bowl gathering until around 12:30 a.m. and was heading home when the crash occurred, said Karen Dumas, a political strategist and longtime friend. 

Friends shared memories and noted that the west-side resident's signature suits and sunglasses were as colorful as the prominent defense attorney's personality.

Woodards often wore colorful shirts, and the frames of his glasses would match the shirts. He wore a thin gold chain with a small charm of the scales of justice.

"Cliff was always Cliff," Diallo said. "He was unapologetically who he was. He decided he was going to be himself and not apologize for it. This is such a loss."

Dumas, who had known Woodards for 30 years, told The Detroit News that the Cass Technical High School graduate was a "colorful, intelligent, committed person."

"He tried to play the tough guy but Cliff was just a little teddy bear," she said of the veteran defense attorney who was admitted to the Michigan bar in February 2003.

"He always had a flair about him. He always went by his own rules, his own agenda."

Dumas called Woodards a "looming figure in the legal community" and in the neighborhood community of Detroit, gaining the respect of people "that you wouldn't even imagine that he knew."

Woodards was an active social media presence and had been a radio host at 910 AM Superstation. 

"Cliff was antagonistic, but he was intelligent about it," Dumas said. "He wanted to question what people thought and why they thought it."

Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones said Woodards was a close friend who acted as her legal adviser during her first campaign for council in 2005. They shared "laughter, prayer and fellowship."

"His sense of humor, flamboyant fashion sense and quick wit made him a Detroit icon and friend of many," she said in a post on social media. "He was trusted confidant and very close friend. I will truly miss Cliff and I am personally devastated by his loss."

Even during the pandemic, Dumas said, Woodards continued his travels to destinations including Turkey and Mexico.

"He was just determined to enjoy his life," Dumas said. "We can all safely say that he did."