Panel Hires Replacement For Ousted State Public Defender

December 09, 2009|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop , tricia.bishop@baltsun.com

A state oversight panel has hired a new Maryland public defender, four months after firing the previous agency head, who had refused to implement cutbacks and other organizational changes.

Montgomery County Public Defender Paul B. DeWolfe, 61, was named as state public defender Tuesday morning, appointed by the three-member Board of Trustees. He will oversee a division with 1,000 employees, including 400 lawyers charged with representing Maryland's indigent defendants, which means - in these recessionary times - that his caseload grows as his budget shrinks.

"He is the one that is tasked with setting the current course for the public defender, and he's got to do it in the current economic climate," said board chairman T. Wray McCurdy. "I just think he's the person that has the best skill set to do it."

In August, Maryland Public Defender Nancy S. Forster was terminated and refused to go quietly, releasing a statement to employees claiming that the board wanted to make cost cuts that would "take this agency backward to mediocrity at best and incompetence at worst."

Forster, who also hired two prominent Maryland attorneys to represent her, did not return a call for comment.

At issue were eight organizational changes the board ostensibly wanted, but Forster did not, including a greater emphasis on legal representation over social service-type programs and the outsourcing of some legal work.

Baltimore City Public Defender Elizabeth L. Julian took over the top job on an interim basis, promptly overturning two firings Forster delivered on her way out the door. But she accepted the position with the stipulation that she "was not required to carry out the requested changes during this interim."

In an interview, DeWolfe said he plans to "bring everyone together in management and begin to set some priorities." He noted the "difficult economic times" and said decisions will come from within the agency, and not from the board.

"What we intend to do," he said, "is take a comprehensive look at the resources of the agency and hopefully come up with an equitable plan for whatever redistribution of resources is needed."

DeWolfe has run the agency's second-largest office since 2000. He is the president of the Maryland Criminal Defense Attorneys Association and last year won the Joseph P. Curran Award for Distinguished Government/Public Interest Attorneys.

"Paul is an upstanding guy, he's an ethical guy, he's a straight-shooter, he's clearly very experienced. He's experienced in managing a major public defender's office, as well, and has a great deal of experience in a courtroom," said Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, who worked with DeWolfe as a prosecutor in Montgomery County.

"We had a lot of interaction on many of the major cases, not the least of which was the sniper case," Gansler said. DeWolfe represented Washington-area sniper John Allen Muhammad before the convicted killer decided to act as his own attorney in 2006; Muhammad was executed last month in Virginia.

DeWolfe, whose salary of roughly $140,000 is set by statute to match that of a circuit court judge, has already appointed two others to support him in his new position. Charles H. "Chip" Dorsey III, a supervising attorney within Baltimore's public defender's office, is DeWolfe's deputy, while Patricia L. Chappell, the current acting deputy, has become director of budget and management operations.

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