Honesty, perspective win praise for Hanson

Public defender known for leading top-notch team of attorneys

May 19, 1999|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

To public defender Carol A. Hanson, winning is a matter of perspective -- and being prepared.

In a recent case, Hanson didn't argue for leniency after her client pleaded guilty to driving under the influence. Instead, she did her homework, recommending that the man serve 36 consecutive days and one weekend a month in jail for a year, to drive home the reminder that drinking has consequences.

Though prosecutors pushed for a six-month jail term, the judge sided with Hanson.

"You have to have credibility with the court," said Hanson, 46, the district public defender for Howard and Carroll counties. "You can't go in there every time and argue that none of your clients deserve jail time. If you do that, judges aren't going to listen."

Hanson's honest and prepared approach has won her many fans in legal circles and helped her retain eight experienced criminal defense lawyers in Howard County. They are so experienced, in fact, that many judges and prosecutors would recommend Hanson's assistant public defenders to friends in trouble.

Louis Willemin has been a public defender since 1979. Richard Bernhardt has been one since 1984. Sam Truette has been a public defender since 1990. Elizabeth Osterman has been one since 1984. The least experienced public defender, Diane Patton, has been one for five years.

The Office of the State Public Defender doesn't keep statistics on experience levels, which vary from district to district, said Deputy Director Ronald A. Karasic, who added: "The Howard County office is certainly one of our more experienced offices."

Courtroom observers agree.

"Some of [Hanson's] attorneys are the best you will find anywhere," said Circuit Judge Lenore R. Gelfman. "They are extraordinarily talented attorneys."

The public defenders say they love their job -- defending the poor and indigent who often suffer from many problems, including drug addiction. With a steady paycheck and a wealth of clients, the attorneys concentrate on practicing law and being zealous advocates.

Most of them said their happiness and success stem from Hanson's leadership.

"It would be difficult for me to imagine someone other than Carol running this office and this office having the same measure of success," said Bernhardt. "She's very good at understanding what we're good at."

They said Hanson's ability to leave her attorneys alone while offering advice is her greatest strength.

She also does the little things.

Several assistant public defenders recounted Hanson's stopping by the courthouse late at night while juries were out to ask her attorneys if they needed anything. Bernhardt said that when he had a cold recently she gave him a large package of tissues.

Baltimore native

Hanson was born in Baltimore in 1952 and later moved with her family to Severna Park. She graduated from Severna Park High School in 1970. After spending two years at Anne Arundel Community College, she moved to Florida with her then-husband, a Naval officer, and graduated from Jacksonville University with degrees in history and political science.

For a year, she taught elementary school, but she wanted to be a lawyer like her father. Hanson and a childhood friend would take bus rides from Anne Arundel County to Baltimore to visit her father's office. She then watched her father, Elmer McConkey, in court.

"He was always fighting for the underdog," Hanson said. "He enjoyed taking on the insurance companies, taking on the big boys."

Legal aid worker

In Jacksonville, she worked at a legal aid office in a rundown section of town. She remembers being impressed by the dedicated lawyers helping the poor.

In 1975, she returned to Maryland and enrolled at the University of Baltimore School of Law. A shy woman, Hanson decided to become a courtroom litigator to combat her fear of public speaking.

In 1979, she joined the Howard County state's attorney's office and quickly worked her way up from handling traffic tickets to armed robberies and homicides. She shared an office with State's Attorney Marna L. McLendon, who was then an assistant state's attorney.

"She shared the office with me," Hanson joked, showing her competitive side.

After several years, Hanson found herself picking apart her cases like a defense attorney. It was time to move on, she said.

In 1985, she became the first woman in Maryland to be appointed a district public defender. She makes $75,000 a year.

Hanson mostly manages the office and handles a District Court docket every three weeks. But she has handled several high-profile cases.

One of her prized courtroom victories ended in the conviction and life sentence of Rodney Eugene Solomon, who killed a 33-year-old scientist during a 1992 carjacking in Savage. Solomon faced the death penalty for killing Pam Basu -- a crime that spurred several anti-carjacking laws -- but Hanson persuaded a jury to spare his life.

"People were calling out for the death penalty," Hanson said. "The facts were horrendous. Our goal was to avoid the death penalty. We did."

Contrasts evident

In her sparsely decorated office, her desk is cluttered with paper. A courtroom sketch depicting her during Solomon's trial hangs on a wall -- alongside a picture of Chicago, where she has visited but never lived. "I just like the picture," she said.

Hanson talks uncomfortably about herself, speaking in measured tones, weighing every comment -- a sharp contrast, observers say, to her actions in a courtroom while defending her clients.

"She's not above getting a little outraged when she thinks prosecutors are overstating things," said Circuit Judge Dennis M. Sweeney.

Though she has applied three times to become a judge and was passed over each time, Hanson said she enjoys her job, not having to worry about drumming up business while getting a steady stream of clients who need her help.

"Our clients are indigent and some have various problems," Hanson said. "They, more than any others, need someone to be an advocate for them."

Pub Date: 5/19/99

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