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Legally Speaking


Issue: June, 2007
Author: Ryan R. Roden

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From Whence the Wyoming Public Defender's Office Came

“From the very beginning, our state and national constitutions and laws have laid great emphasis on procedural and substantive safeguards designed to assure fair trials before impartial tribunals in which every defendant stands equal before the law. This noble ideal cannot be realized if the poor man charged with crime has to face his accusers without a lawyer to assist him.”

– Gideon v. Wainwright (1963)

The public defender concept reflects society’s concern that all individuals, including indigents, receive proper counsel to protect their rights under the law. The concept also recognizes that any accused person who is too poor to hire a lawyer cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him. Former L.A. County Public Defender Ellery E. Cuff once stated: “Justice to each individual, regardless of financial conditions, race, creed or color, is the concern of all the public, and it is the duty of the State, rather than private individuals or agencies to safeguard the rights of an accused person.” Public defender systems fulfill these concepts by providing competent, effective representation to indigent defendants in criminal cases.

The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution, adopted in 1791, states: “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right . . . to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.” The right to counsel in federal proceedings was well-established early in the country’s history by statute, and was reaffirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1938 in Johnson v. Zerbst, 304 U.S. 458 (1938). However, roots of the modern right to counsel for the defendant who cannot afford to pay a private lawyer in state courts can be found more than a century and one-half ago in the case of Webb v. Baird, 6 Ind. 13 (Ind. 1853). In Webb v. Baird, the Indiana Supreme Court recognized a right to an attorney at public expense for an indigent person accused of a crime, grounded in “the principles of a civilized society,” not in constitutional or statutory law.

In 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the landmark case of Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963), wherein the Court unanimously held that an indigent person accused of a serious crime was entitled to the appointment of defense counsel at the state’s expense. Thus, the United States Supreme Court finally held in Gideon that the Sixth Amendment right to counsel applied to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment. Thereafter, in Argersinger v. Hamlin, 402 U.S. 25 (1972), the United States Supreme Court extended Gideon’s principle, holding that no imprisonment can be imposed, whether for a felony or a misdemeanor, unless the accused is afforded his right to counsel.

Generally, until Gideon was decided, states were not required to provide counsel for indigent defendants. However, some states and counties took it upon themselves to provide that Sixth Amendment right to counsel. In 1914 the County of Los Angeles pioneered the concept of the “Public Defender” when the nation’s first Public Defender, Walton J. Wood, was appointed by the county’s Board of Supervisors. Similarly, Wyoming was one of the early progressive and “civilized” states to protect indigent defendants. Even before Wyoming became a state, the 1876 Compiled Laws of the Territory of Wyoming provided that if the accused “be without counsel and unable to employ any, it shall be the duty of the court to assign him counsel, at his request, not exceeding two, who shall have free access to the accused at all reasonable hours.” That law–that an indigent accused had the right to be appointed by not just one attorney, but two attorneys–existed in Wyoming from 1876 until 1975 when it was finally repealed.

The 1975 Wyoming statutes instituted a county-wide public defender system whereby the board of county commissioners of each county were required to provide for representation for indigent defendants. Thus, Wyoming’s 23 counties bore the entire expense of providing legal representation for indigent criminal defendants. One way to achieve this was by establishing and maintaining a public defender office and arranging with the criminal courts in the county to assign attorneys on an equitable basis through a systematic, coordinated plan. Attorneys from that time remember judges appointing them from a list to represent indigent defendants. In Natrona County, Wyatt Skaggs, current Senior Public Defender, had a contract with the county commissioners for that representation.

In 1977 the Wyoming State Legislature passed the Wyoming Public Defender Act, creating a statewide program dedicated to representing indigents charged with criminal offenses in state court. The new statutes relieved the counties of the bulk of the burden of indigent defense. The Wyoming Public Defender’s Office became effective on July 1, 1978. Frank Chapman was appointed as the first State Public Defender by Governor Ed Herschler. Charlotte Roney was the first employee to be hired, filling the role of Chief Financial Officer. Frank, with the help of Wyatt Skaggs and Charlotte Roney, quickly cobbled together a workable program, within the budgetary limits imposed by the legislature. Dick Honaker was hired as the first Appellate Counsel. The Public Defender’s Office was located in Wyatt Skaggs’ office in Casper for a time, before being relocated to the Hynds Building in Cheyenne. During the first year of operation, the office handled about 2,468 new cases with a staff of 30 full-time and 24 part-time positions and a biennium budget of approximately $1.4 million dollars.

Frank Chapman left the office in October of 1979 and Dick Honaker was appointed as the State Public Defender. In the summer of 1979, the program received a federal grant to create a Public Defender Criminal Practice Manual, outlining both the operations of the criminal justice system from arrest through appeal, and the duties of a public defender at each stage. Two UW College of Law students, Larry Jones and Sylvia Miller, were hired to draft the manual, which was edited by Dick Honaker. Copies of the manual were distributed to all public defender offices in the state. Dick Honaker served as agency head from November 1, 1979, through November 17, 1981, when he left the Office to pursue a private practice in Rock Springs.

During a brief interim, from November 18, 1981, until December 13, 1981, the late King Tristani, an Assistant Public Defender based in the Laramie County Office at the time, served as Acting State Public Defender. Thereafter, the late Leonard Munker was appointed by Governor Herschler and headed the Office during a remarkable tenure from December 14, 1981, until January of 1995. Probably the most controversial aspect of Mr. Munker’s lengthy tenure was his handling of the Mark Hopkinson case. Mr. Hopkinson had been represented at trial by private counsel, and was sentenced to death. After the death sentence was reversed, the case became the responsibility of the Public Defender’s Program. Mr. Munker was firmly committed to Mr. Hopkinson’s case, and truly believed in his innocence. He handled the case through a second penalty trial and direct appeal, then through years of post-conviction hearings. Mr. Hopkinson was eventually executed in 1992.

When Jim Geringer was elected Governor in 1994, one of his first appointments was a new State Public Defender, Sylvia Hackl, who had begun her career as an intern with the program before serving as both an Assistant Public Defender and the program’s Appellate Counsel. Under Ms. Hackl’s administration, the Deputy State Public Defender position was created. Ken Koski, former Senior Assistant Public Defender from Powell, was chosen as the first Deputy. Charlotte Roney retired in the spring of 1999, and Brian Young was hired as the new Chief Financial Officer.

Sylvia Hackl left the public defender program in January 2001, and Ken Koski was appointed as State Public Defender. He served in that capacity, overseeing a burgeoning caseload and multiple capital cases, until his untimely passing in September of 2006. In March 2007, Governor Dave Freudenthal appointed Diane Lozano as the sixth State Public Defender. Ms. Lozano was the Supervising Senior Assistant Public Defender for the Laramie County Office, and was one of the last attorneys Leonard Munker hired during his tenure. Ms. Lozano selected Ryan R. Roden, a Senior Assistant Appellate Counsel, as the Deputy State Public Defender.

Wyoming’s Public Defender Office provides representation to indigent criminal defendants at both the adult and juvenile levels, including individuals facing revocation of probation or parole, and individuals who are to be extradited to other states. The Office not only provides legal counsel at the circuit and district court levels in each of the state’s 23 counties, but also handles direct appeals to the Wyoming Supreme Court and Writs of Certiorari to the United States Supreme Court.

The primary purpose of the Public Defender’s Office is to ensure that the constitutional right to a competent, effective attorney in criminal cases is met. It guarantees an established system by which no innocent person will be convicted because of an inability to afford an attorney and that no guilty person will be convicted without a fair trial. Wyoming’s Public Defender program has been recognized as a model for rural states.

“Not only these precedents but also reason and reflection require us to recognize that in our adversary system of criminal justice, any person haled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him. This seems to us to be an obvious truth.”

– Gideon v. Wainwright (1963)

Special thanks to Wyatt Skaggs and Sylvia Hackl for contributing to the article. Some information taken from Charlotte Roney’s speech given at the Wyoming Public Defender’s 2003 Annual Seminar Banquet.

Ryan R. Roden earned a B.S. in Political Science with honors in 1991. He earned a J.D. with honor from the University of Wyoming College of Law in 1993. He clerked for the late Justice Larry L. Lehman at the Wyoming Supreme Court prior to joining the Wyoming Public Defender’s Office as a Senior Assistant Appellate Counsel in 1999. He was appointed Deputy State Public Defender in March 2007.

Copyright © 2007 – Wyoming State Bar