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Friedman retiring after 28 years as region’s chief public defender

Fred Friedman cleans out his office in the Alworth Building on Tuesday afternoon. The state’s senior chief public defender, Friedman retires Monday after more than 40 years of service to the public defender’s office in Duluth. (Steve Kuchera / / 3
Fred Friedman talks about his career in the public defender's office recently. He will retire Monday, March 31, 2014. (Steve Kuchera / / 3
Fred Friedman during his college days. (Photo courtesy of Fred Friedman)3 / 3

A criminal defense lawyer for more than 40 years, Fred Friedman has no choice in the cases his office takes on. From misdemeanors to murders, he’s expected to do it all.

And that’s just the way he likes it.

Northeastern Minnesota’s chief public defender for 28 years, Friedman has spent his career advising and advocating for criminal defendants who cannot afford attorneys of their own.

“It’s too easy to get pushed around,” Friedman said. “You need somebody like me to stand up and say, ‘Not here. Not in northern Minnesota.’”

Friedman, 67, will retire Monday as the state’s senior chief public defender. His commitment to fairness and justice for all defendants has earned him praise from public defenders and prosecutors alike.

Sixth Judicial District Judge John DeSanto tried a couple dozen cases against Friedman during his 34 years as a St. Louis County prosecutor. He described Friedman as an honorable adversary who passionately fought for what he believed was right.

“It’s so important that you have balance in the courtroom and have as strong an advocate for the defense as you do for the prosecution,” DeSanto said. “With

Fred, you knew there was going to be an equal balance, and cases would be decided on the evidence. That’s the way it should be.”

A natural fit For Friedman, public defense is a natural fit. He grew up watching the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. His father, a labor attorney, fought for child labor and minimum wage laws.

A 1965 Denfeld High School graduate and 1969 University of Minnesota Duluth graduate, Friedman went on to study law at the University of Minnesota. It was clear to him early on that he wanted to become a public defender.

“It was so obvious the disadvantages poor folks had,” he said. “It was such an unfair time, and nobody was speaking up for them.”

Friedman returned to Duluth in December 1972, soon after graduating law school, to become the region’s first full-time public defender. The public defender’s office at that time was small, having been formed less than a decade earlier when the U.S. Supreme Court issued the groundbreaking Gideon v. Wainwright decision, ruling that indigent defendants are entitled to a defense attorney.

But the state of Minnesota remained hesitant to spend money on the public defender system. Within five years, Friedman was reduced to part-time status.

“(I) had to have a private practice, frankly, to pay the bills and save for my children’s college educations,” he said. “It was strictly a matter of the state not wanting to pay overhead.”

In 1986, Friedman was appointed chief public defender when his predecessor, John Durfee, was sworn in as a judge. It wasn’t until 1992 that the state brought him back full-time.

Today, Friedman oversees an office of more than 30 full- and part-time attorneys and 10 professional staff. He manages an annual budget of $2.7 million and is responsible for assigning attorneys to represent about 90 percent of all criminal defendants in St. Louis, Carlton, Cook and Lake counties.

In the courtroom Reflecting on 40-odd years of cases, Friedman recalls many victories and many defeats.

“The cases you win, my attitude is always been, ‘That’s nice. Next case,’” he said. “But there’s a couple of couple of cases I’ve lost that I think about all the time. It’s tough when you’re convinced you’re right and a jury sees it another way.”

As chief public defender, he has taken on a greatly reduced caseload. It’s been more than a year since his last trial. But Friedman has made it a point to represent clients and make appearances at the jail.

The courtroom was where Friedman was at his best, fellow lawyers said.

“Fred was very good at developing a theme for his cases and repeating it over and over and over again, sometimes ad nauseam,” DeSanto recalled. “He was very emotional in the courtroom. You knew he cared when he presented cases. He was always well prepared and just a good advocate, especially in final argument.”

Gary Bjorklund, head of the criminal division of the St. Louis County Attorney’s Office, said Friedman always displayed a remarkable ability to work with prosecutors.

“Fred realized that if prosecutors and defense attorneys can get along and work together on issues, it’s better for both sides in the long-run,” he said.

Friedman’s advocacy on behalf of the defender’s office makes for a better criminal justice system, Bjorklund said.

“We see pro se defendants (representing themselves in court), and it’s hard to work with them,” he said. “A strong public defender system makes sure that everyone does their job. It makes prosecutors do their jobs right and it makes law enforcement does its job right. A strong system makes everyone else better. Fred sees the big picture when it comes to that.”

A constant battle The least favorite part of Fried­man’s job is the frequent trips to St. Paul to lobby for funding.

“It never ends,” he said. “Sometimes there’s money; sometimes there’s no money. Plus, you’re competing with causes that are just as great: public health, schools, environment, highway.”

But State Public Defender John Stuart said Friedman’s work in St. Paul has been instrumental in establishing public defender offices throughout greater Minnesota.

For many years, Stuart said, there was a major geographical divide in the quality of public defender services. A defendant in Bemidji or Moorhead would not receive the same quality representation as someone in Minneapolis or St. Paul.

“We needed a person with a strong commitment and tremendous passion and energy to get the message out, outside of the Twin Cities,” Stuart said. “It was thanks to Fred and a couple of other people like Fred — if there is anyone like Fred — that we were able to develop a reasonable plan to put 25 more public defender offices out in Minnesota in places where they never were before.”

Today, Friedman estimates that Minnesota has about the sixth or seventh best public defender system in the country.

Many states have no centralized public defender system. Cash-strapped counties are expected to provide those services in some states. In others, representation goes to the lowest bidder. Elsewhere, it’s up to judges to appoint public defenders.

“A lot of people, including the working poor, can’t possibly afford an attorney,” Friedman said. “I see my job as narrowing the advantage that wealthy people have over poor people in the courtroom.”

He’s not shy about pointing out problems he still sees in the system. Minorities are still arrested disproportionately, he said. And many defendants feel pressured into accepting plea agreements, even when they’re not guilty, he said.

“If somebody’s looking at 140 months and they offer them two years, some people are going to grab it whether they’re guilty or not,” he said. “I wish there were more trials, but there are so many reasons for there to not be.”

A passion for teaching More than 20 years ago, a young Gordon Ramsay sat in a Friedman’s UMD classroom. Then an undergraduate student, the current Duluth police chief is one of many future cops, lawyers, probation officers and correctional workers who have taken one of Friedman’s courses.  

Friedman has taught two or three courses a year in the sociology department and medical school at the university since 1975.

“He was very engaging and he had a memory like a steel trap,” Ramsay recalled of Friedman’s teaching. “I struggle to remember things that happened yesterday, and he remembers sports scores from years ago.”

Growing up, Friedman said he wanted to become either a lawyer or a teacher. He got the opportunity to do both.

Educational ties are strong in his family. His wife of 43 years, Alana, is a career middle school counselor. One of his sons, Danny, is a junior college instructor in Thunder Bay. His other son, Allan, is a classical conductor in Durham, N.C.

Ramsay estimated that Friedman has taught about half of the current Duluth police force, something that has helped the police department and public defender’s office maintain a good relationship.

“Fred and I certainly don’t agree on everything, but we have a relationship where we can have disagreement,” Ramsay said. “We’re on competing sides almost. But we can talk to each other about almost anything. We have a mutual respect for the system we work in, and Fred’s extremely knowledgeable.”

In addition to UMD, Friedman travels around the country several times a year to teach trial and management skills to mid-career public defenders.

Teaching is a lot like being a defense attorney, Friedman said.

“My goal is to get (clients) educated,” he explained. “I tell them the strength of weaknesses of the case against them, what they’re looking at and the evidence against them. In other words, I’m bringing them up to speed and educating them.”

An active future Friedman is retiring from the public defender’s office, but he isn’t going away altogether.

He will continue to serve on numerous boards, including the Duluth Police Foundation and the Legal Aid Service, and several law committees. He’ll also continue his teaching duties at UMD and around the country.

Dan Lew, the managing attorney of the district’s public defender’s office, was selected earlier this month to succeed Friedman. He will become just the third chief in the almost half-century history of the office, a fact that Friedman takes great pride in.

“I’m a little sensitive when I hear people say to him, ‘You’ve got big shoes to fill,’ or ‘I wouldn’t want to be the guy after Fred,’” he said. “My attitude is that I’m Fred, he’s Dan. He has to do it his way. I’ll be around if he has any questions or things he wants to talk about, but I’ll never interfere.”

Friedman made it clear he won’t be seen in any courtroom again.

“I don’t want to compete for the buck against people I spotted, identified, raised, managed and coached up,” he said. “I don’t want to do it. They need the money more than I do.”

He will, however, continue to live in West Duluth.

“I am not moving away to Florida, Arizona, Nevada or any other state that doesn’t have a state income tax,” he said. “Minnesota has supported and educated my family and me. I’m going to support Minnesota.”