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The history of Alaska's public defenders

(From the September-October edition of the Alaska Bar Rag)

By Victor Carlson

The Alaska Public Defender Agency was created by legislation (primarily sponsored by the late Sen. Terry Miller in 1969) to provide representation for felony defendants who qualified for court-appointed counsel. $250,000 was appropriated for the initial operating budget through June 30, 1970.

By the time of the Alaska bar convention in May 1969, which was held in Nome, the legislation had passed and it was realized that the Alaska Judicial Council would be soliciting applications for nominations to Gov. Keith Miller.

Tom Fenton and I were having a drink in the Seaview Room of the North Star Hotel one evening during the convention. Our discussion turned to the pending solicitation. We knew that the best qualified and logical choice was Herbert Soll who had served a district attorney in Fairbanks and for whom both Tom and I had worked. Herb had been in private practice in Anchorage and had been instrumental in establishing Alaska Legal Services. However, Herb was serving with the Peace Corps in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and not scheduled to return to Alaska until early 1970.

Tom and I discussed other possible applicants and finally Tom said: 'You should apply, Vic.' I did not commit at the time, but by the next morning realized it was the logical thing to do. I had been the attorney for the Greater Anchorage Area Borough for three years, serving with John Asplund, the borough chairman, who was the best boss and mentor anyone could possibly have. It was time for me to seek new adventures and I did not want to leave Alaska. If I succeeded in becoming the public defender I would have a new adventure and make it possible for Herb to apply to succeed me. I did not have a plan for my next move but only expected to get the agency established before moving on.

In retrospect the applications, interviews, and appointment happened in record time. I was appointed in late June 1969. Even then politics was involved in the process.

Before I had secured the appointment, James Gilmore and R. Collin Middleton, both of whom were associates in prominent Anchorage firms, approached me and requested consideration as assistants if I was successful. I was surprised and pleased by their interest. Realizing that such highly skilled and dedicated young lawyers were interested in the defense of indigents gave me confidence to persevere.

In mid-August 1969, the agency opened its Anchorage office above Howard's Gun Shop on 5th Avenue in the area of the present Town Square. We had a telephone, two chairs and a borrowed card table. Cases were coming from the courts, jail personnel and self-referrals. Having more than enough to do was never a problem.

Soon Dick Madsen joined the agency in Fairbanks and David Backstrom moved from Juneau to Fairbanks to become the hardest working two-man office in interior Alaska. Jim Gilmore and Francis Kernan joined the office in Anchorage by early fall 1969 and Herb Soll in early 1970 upon his return from Brazil.

Colin Middleton opened the Ketchikan office in the old hospital building. His apartment also was there, so his commute was short, a flight of dark stairs.

I went to Juneau in early 1970 to open the office there, lobby for additional funds, and oppose legislation unfavorable to the agency's clients. Rep. Tom Fink was the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and was most courteous. I also served the agency's clients in Nome with monthly visits, which resulted in my only defense of a murder charge in a June, 1970 jury trial.

Needless to say, I learned much about trials and area politics during that ordeal. William Garrison 'hit the ball out of the park' when he held the victim's bullet- riddled coat before the jury and bits of down drifted to the floor. The jury generously returned a verdict on a lesser charge than murder in the first degree. After the verdict was returned, one of the jurors complimented me for my defense. It did not remove the sting of losing but on reflection, has assuaged, in part, my wondering if there was not more I could have done.

In mid-1970 Donald Craddick joined the agency in Juneau and Bryan Timbers in Nome, and I returned to Anchorage.

The best thing that ever happened to the Alaska Public Defender Agency was Roberta Johnson joining us in late 1969. She had served as the chief administrator in the Department of Law and was currently the chief deputy clerk in the Superior Court. With the support of Judge Stewart and Donald Dungan, Roberta moved into the decrepit office on the corner of 4th and Main from which she prepared the budget, compiled position descriptions, did the accounting and acted as secretary. If it had not been for Roberta, my tenure at the agency would have been a disaster. Her efforts established the pattern which continues to be the foundation of the agency today. Roberta then returned to the Department of Law upon John Havelock becoming attorney general in late 1970.

Without the goodwill of the bar and support of Josephine McPhetres, Clerk of the Alaska Supreme Court, Chief Justice Nesbitt and Justice Dimond and myriad others, including jail personnel, the agency would not have achieved the high regard which continues today.

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