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Former Pierce County public defender seeks Supreme Court post

Post by Adam Lynn / The News Tribune on June 5, 2008 at 3:14 pm with No Comments »
June 5, 2008 3:14 pm

Hill Stephens

Pierce County’s former chief public defender on Thursday filed to run for a position on the state Supreme Court, according to records filed at the Washington Secretary of State’s Office.

Jack Hill led the county’s Department of Assigned Counsel for more than 20 years before retiring in 2006.

Now he’s seeking the seat currently held by Justice Debra Stephens. Gov. Chris Gregoire appointed Stephens to the post in January to replace the retiring Bobbe Bridge.

A Spokane resident, Stephens, 42, is the first woman ever from Eastern Washington to sit on the state’s high court.

A native of Spokane himself, the 58-year-old Hill joined the Pierce County public defender’s office in 1975, was appointed acting director of the office in 1982 and ascended to the top job in 1985.

Former TNT writer Karen Hucks wrote an extensive profile of Hill in 2006. It follows:

It’s ‘the end of an era’ as defender retires

Attorney Jack Hill made a long career out of representing Pierce County’s indigent

By Karen Hucks

Thursday,June 29, 2006

Edition: SOUTH SOUND, Section: Front Page, Page A01

For more than 30 years, Jack Hill has had a job many people wouldn’t want.

He’s led Pierce County’s Department of Assigned Counsel, defending people charged with crimes who often are politically unpopular to defend – men, women and children who can’t afford to pay for an attorney.

Despite the challenges, Hill will retire at the end of the month from a job he thinks has been – and still is – great.

“I still like to come in the door,” he said recently.

Friday, the 56-year-old father of four will walk out that door at 949 Market St. for the last time, and turn over the job of leading the county’s indigent defense agency to someone else. His replacement hasn’t yet been named.

The Spokane native, who briefly was an Oregon State Patrol officer before going to law school, says it’s time to do something different.

He says he’s still considering his work options, but is sure he’ll spend more time on his Harley-Davidson Road King motorcycle and on his trawler with his wife, Martha, in the San Juan Islands.

Hill said he’s proud to have been a part of a system that provides fair, cost-effective defense for people who can’t afford to hire attorneys.

“It’s a moral commitment at a constitutional level to make sure the system is fair,” he said. “The constitution doesn’t say you have to prosecute people. It says you have the right to counsel. The constitution is about protecting us from government.”

Under Hill, the agency went from a few attorneys and one legal assistant to 60 or so attorneys and 30 legal assistants, researchers and support workers. The budget climbed from about $250,000 to $13 million.

His job is to do everything from balancing the budget to assigning attorneys to cases.

In 2006, the office will handle about 11,400 felony cases, 22,250 district and municipal court defendants, 3,445 juvenile cases and 17,550 dependency hearings, according to budget estimates.

Hill said having a heart operation in the early 1990s made him lose his love of conflict in the courtroom.

“This business takes a toll on you that you can’t quantify,” Hill said. “The practice of law – at least criminal law – has not become kinder and gentler. . . . Living in litigation is as stressful a situation as anything, short of war.”

Since then he’s spent less time as a trial lawyer and more time trying, through cases and lobbying, to reform the law.

Last year, he represented white supremacist murderer Scotty James Butters before the Washington State Supreme Court on whether judges can convene a jury to decide if a defendant who has pleaded guilty deserves an exceptionally long sentence.

Hill thinks they shouldn’t be able to change the law to ask jurors the question after a plea bargain.

He represented Berlean Williams, a South End Tacoma woman whose 3-year-old great-niece, Lenoria Jones, disappeared in 1995 in a contempt of court case. He wanted to keep police from using parental rights hearings as an investigation tool.

He also has pushed to require more training for people who interview children in sexual assault cases, so their statements are more reliable.

‘a social worker at heart’

Recently, Hill has been entrenched in developing treatments for defendants battling drug addiction.

And he’s hoping to find a case that’s right for a Supreme Court appeal that would create a law allowing only juries to take someone’s parenting rights away.

“Maybe I’m just a social worker at heart,” Hill said.

His reputation is that of a calm, steady force, a smart, ethical man with a gift for managing people and defusing tension.

“He’s always shown that mature wisdom,” said Prosecutor Gerry Horne, who worked with Hill at the defenders agency in the early days.

“He’s the real deal,” Superior Court Judge John Hickman said. “To be the director this long and accomplish what he has, he’s had some really good skills. He’s been a very, very effective advocate for indigent people in this county.”

Hill’s job isn’t an easy one because it’s defending the people who’ve caused the most pain in the community, said County Executive and former Prosecutor John Ladenburg.

“But it’s also a vastly important job to be done, and done right,” he added.

There’s another reason it’s a tough assignment.

“He has to keep so many people happy,” said private defense attorney Monte Hester. “He has to keep the county executive happy. He has to keep the finance director happy. He has to keep the courts happy. He has to get along with the prosecutor. And he has to keep the lawyers happy – the ones who are working there, as well as the private attorneys. It’s a pretty challenging position.”

Ladenburg and Hester both praised Hill as a huge success.

Doug Tufts, who retired in December after being Hill’s chief attorney since 1981, called Hill a “rare and beguiling combination of playfulness and profound intellect, an exceptional servant of justice with wide respect on the local and national scenes, dedicated to improving the lives of children and adults touched by the court system.”

The attorneys who work for Hill praise him for letting them handle their own cases and make their own decisions, stepping in only when necessary.

“He gives you the ability to be a lawyer, and he expects you to conduct yourself like one,” chief deputy Mike Kawamura said. “I’ve really appreciated that.”

a fine diplomat

Hill has been lauded for keeping private lawyers involved in public defense, even though the pay isn’t nearly what they usually charge, the hours can be long and the cases contentious.

When the agency has a conflict of interest – because a public defender had earlier represented someone involved in the case – Hill calls a private attorney who has agreed to take cases.

The American Bar Association recently called that approach the best way to handle public defense.

Hester said Hill is part of what’s made the arrangement work.

“I have, on occasion, taken a case because it was obvious he was making a personal request to do so,” he said. “He really wants things to be done well. When he asks you to get involved, you have a tendency to want to please him.”

Hill said he’s proud of his work to:

&bull Establish the county’s family drug court, where parents with drug problems commit to treatment and recovery.

&bull Make parental termination hearings more public and bring more funding to defend people who might lose custody of their children.

&bull Provide strong defenses for the high number of clients who could face the death penalty.

He’s also happy he can’t think of a successful lawsuit against his department for ineffective assistance of counsel, and that none of his attorneys has been disbarred for unethical behavior in the past 30 years.

Hill’s parting gift to the department has been helping establish a second public defense office, which will open next month and be headed by lawyer Ray Thoenig.

It will allow public lawyers to handle more cases instead of sending them to private attorneys.

Don Winskill is a longtime private criminal defense attorney, a former prosecutor and a friend of Hill’s.

“A lot of us are saying it’s hard to imagine DAC without Jack Hill,” Winskill said. “Because he is DAC. It’s the end of an era.”

SIDEBAR: Some of Jack Hill’s biggest cases

&bullSaved cop killer David Ace Milford from execution in 1977 by securing a not-guilty-by-reason-of-insanity judgment.

&bull Got the confession of Michael Paul Lovrick, who stabbed a woman to death in 1982, thrown out based on a gap in the tape.

&bull Represented Berlean Williams, suspected in the disappearance of her 3-year-old great-niece, Lenoria Jones, in 1995.

&bull Won reduced charges for Walter White, who threw his 2-year-old daughter and 1-year-old son out a third-story window in 1997.

&bull Fought against a life sentence for Scotty James Butters, a white supremacist who killed a homeless man in 2003.

- – -

SIDEBAR: FIVE of Jack Hill’s biggest cases (A11)

&bull David Ace Milford, who killed Tacoma police officer Larry Frost with Frost’s gun on Sept. 9, 1977. Combining independent investigation with expert testimony from a psychiatrist, Hill won a not-guilty-by-reason-of-insanity judgment for Milford, whom prosecutors had sought to execute.

&bull Michael Paul Lovrick, who stabbed pregnant Safeway clerk Sally Ann Hale to death on Dec. 26, 1982. Hill persuaded a judge to throw out Lovrick’s taped confession, saving him from the death penalty when prosecutors had to reduce the charges against him. Hill said the argument hinged on the discovery of a gap in the tape, followed by the confession. Citing statutes governing recordings, Hill set an obstacle prosecutors could not overcome, and the confession was rejected. Lovrick was sentenced to life in prison plus 10 years for murder and manslaughter.

&bull Berlean Williams, a South End Tacoma woman whose 3-year-old great-niece, Lenoria Jones, disappeared in 1995. Hill defended Williams in a contempt of court case, successfully arguing that police were using the civil case to coerce evidence for a criminal trial. Williams was never charged with any crime in connection to the child, who is still missing.

&bull Walter White, who threw his 2-year-old daughter and 1-year-old son out a third-story window in 1997. Hill, citing the defendant’s chaotic home life and circumstances along with psychiatric testimony, persuaded prosecutors there was no intent to kill the children. White pleaded guilty to child assault after initially being charged with attempted first-degree murder.

&bull Scotty James Butters, a white supremacist who killed Randall Townsend, a homeless man, in 2003. Hill represented Butters before the Washington State Supreme Court in 2005 after prosecutors sought a life sentence for him. Butters pleaded guilty and never stood trial, but Hill argued that should have earned him a standard-range sentence, rather than the exceptional sentence prosecutors wanted. The crux of Hill’s argument cited recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions that suggest a defendant can demand a jury trial before an exceptional sentence can be imposed.

- – -

Karen Hucks and Sean Robinson, The News Tribune

- – -

SIDEBAR: John Henry Hill III (A11)

Born: Sept. 30, 1949, in Spokane. He lived in Spokane until fifth grade, when he moved to South Tacoma.

Education: Graduated from Mount Tahoma High School. Went to Tacoma Community College and the University of Washington. Graduated with a bachelor of science degree in police science and administration in 1971. Earned law degree from Willamette University School of Law in 1974.

Legal experience: Spent a short time as a police officer in Oregon before going to law school at Williamette University. Interned at the Multnomah County Prosecutor’s Office in Oregon. Joined the Pierce County Department of Assigned Counsel in 1975. Appointed acting director in 1982. Named director in 1985.

Community involvement: Pierce County Law and Justice Commission, Pierce County Criminal Justice Task Force, Superior Court Criminal Procedures Committee, Drug Court oversight committees and Washington State Bar Association’s criminal law board.

Personal: Married to Martha Hill, a manager for Horizon Lines shipping company, for 16 years. They have four children, ages 12 to 24.

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