First Black Public Defender promises new direction

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When introduced by Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald as the new head of the public defender’s office for the county, Elliot Howsie, the first African-American to hold the office, said he is “passionate about criminal defense,” and will make the choices needed to turn the office around.

“I am aware that there are a number of problems to be addressed,” he said. “I look forward to working with the employees to make sure that clients are treated with respect and receive the defense they are entitled to.”

takingcharge
TAKING CHARGE—Elliot Howsie takes questions after Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald names him to head the public defender’s office. He is the first African-American to hold the post. (Photo by J.L. Martello.)

Though he has never managed this many people, Howsie said he has the willingness to manage the 80-attorney office that handles roughly 25,000 cases per year. Even though 80-plus attorneys are employed by the office technically only the head is titled public defender.

“I’ve never done that, but I have an understanding of criminal defense, and of the system, and of what’s needed,” he said.

Fitzgerald said he chose Howsie for the position after interviewing dozens of attorneys.

“When we spoke, some of Elliot’s plans are impressive,” he said. “He has a solid reputation in the community and among criminal defense attorneys, judges and even prosecutors. I look forward to the positive changes he will make in this office.”

The office has been under fire, and under threat of an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit, since late last year when it was revealed that recommendations from a 2008 audit that described the office as “dysfunctional” had not been implemented.

In an October press release, Pennsylvania ACLU Legal Director Witold Walczak said despite a 1996 consent decree resulting from a previous lawsuit, defendants still are not receiving proper legal representation from the Public Defenders Office.

“The most frequent complaint we receive in our office from OPD clients is that they are on the verge of trial and still haven’t spoken with a lawyer, or even been able to identify who their public defender is,” he said. “Obviously, a lawyer who has never met or spoken to her client cannot provide constitutionally adequate representation.”

Walczak said after meeting with Howsie, he is cautiously optimistic that he can improve representation for clients by meeting benchmarks such as seeing that attorneys meet with clients prior to preliminary hearings, and conduct investigations prior to plea negotiations.

“We called on the county executive to make improvements and certainly, this change in personnel is a step in the right direction,” he said. “We said we’d give him six to nine months to improve operations.”

Without going into detail, Howsie said he wants to streamline operations so that clients are seen by an attorney within 24 hours.

“We have talked about additional management, but I’m not ready to discuss personnel matters at this time,” he said. “The problem with the office isn’t the lack of money, it’s how it’s spent.”

Fitzgerald said he is confident Howsie will succeed.

“It’s going to take leadership that some folks may not like,” said Fitzgerald. “But Elliot’s ready to make the tough choices.”

Howsie, 34, grew up in Wilkinsburg and attended Central Catholic High School before earning an undergraduate degree from Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He received his law degree from Duquesne University in 1998, and while there interned with the Public Defenders Office.

Following graduation, Howsie served as a clerk for the state Superior Court and spent several years in the District Attorney’s Child Abuse division.  He left to open his own firm specializing in criminal defense and personal injury.

His reputation is such that he earned the nickname, “the Johnnie Cochran of Pittsburgh.”

“If that means I’m someone who’ll fight for my clients’ rights, then yeah. I’m okay with that,” he said.

As for the issue of unpaid taxes raised in a February Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article, Howsie said he “wrote the checks himself” that same day. He said he has already handed off his private practice cases to colleagues and will devote “150 percent” of his time to his new office.  His salary as public defender is $98,345.

(Send comments to cmorrow@newpittsburghcourier.com.)

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