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Stephen E. Harris, a former public defender who worked tirelessly for the rights of criminal defendants, dies

By Frederick N. Rasmussen, Baltimore Sun


Stephen E. Harris, Maryland’s second chief public defender who earlier had been district public defender for Anne Arundel County and had made his mark protecting the rights of indigent criminal defendants, died of prostate cancer Dec. 11 at his Roland Park Place home. He was 83.


“He dedicated himself to a career of representing the underdog and those in society, as he would say, who were always at the end of the line waiting for services,” former Maryland District Court Judge Ronald A. Karasic, who was a friend, mentor and colleague for 45 years, wrote in an email profile of Mr. Harris.


“Stephen Harris was fearless, didn’t back down when he believed he was right, and in doing so, didn’t care what other people thought. I always admired him for that,” Judge Karasic wrote.


Stephen Edgar Harris, son of Buckley Harris, a chemical engineer, and his wife, Rose Abrams Harris, who worked in her family’s clothing manufacturing business, was born in Baltimore and raised in Forest Park.


Mr. Harris was a Forest Park High School graduate where he played varsity football and lacrosse. After graduating from the University of Maryland, College Park, he served with the Maryland National Guard and worked as a probation officer for Baltimore City while putting himself through law school at night.


After obtaining his law degree from the old Eastern College, now the University of Baltimore School of Law, in 1964, and passing the Maryland Bar, he answered an advertisement for an attorney position with the firm of Brown, Allen and Watts, a prestigious African American law firm, whose partners later went on to have distinguished careers as judges.


“When he showed up for his interview he was surprised to find that the entire firm was Black; however, they were equally surprised to learn he was white,” Judge Karasic wrote. “He was hired. During his tenure there, he saw first hand the effects of discrimination against members of his firm and its clients. It was that experience that helped mold his intolerance of discrimination in any form.”


After the Supreme Court ruled in the late 1960s that indigent criminal defendants were entitled to legal representation, Mr. Harris was appointed the first chief defender of Baltimore, whose office operated out of Legal Aid.


“This program, funded by the state, was to provide legal representation to the indigent accused in Baltimore City and was to run for 18 months,” said his son, Dr. Michael Harris of South Kingstown, Rhode Island. “He had the novel idea to hire ex-cons as investigators. The thought was they would gain the trust of the accused and therefore they would receive much better representation.”


When the statewide office of public defender was established, Alan Hamilton Murrell, one of the state’s most celebrated criminal defense attorneys of the 20th century, was appointed its first head in 1971.


In the early 1970s, Mr. Harris was hired as a felony trial public defender assigned to the old Supreme Bench of Baltimore City,” wrote Judge Karasic, who served on the District Court from 2001 until retiring in 2013.


He recalled his days clerking for Mr. Harris: “I met him when he was a felony trial public defender and I was assigned to be his summer law clerk in 1971. On my first day, I went to his office and introduced myself.As he got up from behind his desk to leave for court, all he said to me was, ‘Do you love the law?’ It was only later that I learned he was putting me on and not to take him too seriously.”


He added: “Steve was a gifted trial practitioner, who had a mind like a tape recorder. Without notes he could retain verbatim the testimony of witnesses, which came in handy for cross-examination and impeachment purposes.”


In 1978, Mr. Harris was named interim public defender for Anne Arundel County, and later became its permanent head after his predecessor T. Joseph Touhey stepped down during a criminal investigation. He held the position until 1990, when he resigned to enter private practice.


A month later, when Mr. Murrell, who was 88, announced his retirement, Mr. Harris was named the state’s new chief public defender in 1990 by the board of trustees that oversees the public defender system, with a substantial recommendation from its former head.


“He was one of our best trial lawyers,” Mr. Murrell told The Washington Post. “He tried a great number of death penalty cases quite successfully and saved the lives of a lot of people.”


Judge Karasic wrote: “I was privileged to serve as his deputy and to observe his dedication to the delivery of legal services to thousands of defendants, who otherwise would not be able to afford representation.”


“Harris could be collaborative — he has worked with bar association and legislative leaders to clarify the public defender’s role in specialized areas like Children In Need of Assistance cases — or confrontational,” The Daily Record reported when Mr. Harris retired in 2004.


“He has clashed with judges over ordering public defenders into court against the time preparation policies of the office, and fought media over access to the private contents of death penalty client files.


“He has even locked horns with public interest lawyers and law professors over providing public defenders at bail review hearings, because he thought the offices’ limited resources would be better spent at later stages in the criminal process.”


“Under his leadership, several cases from the office found their way to the Supreme Court, helping to shape the nation’s law of criminal procedure,” The Daily Record observed.


During his tenure overseeing the “state’s death penalty defense machinery,” The Daily Record reported, only three of his clients were executed.


Perhaps one of the most enduring contributions that Mr. Harris made was his work with the Innocence Project for the purpose of exonerating wrongfully convicted individuals. Harris was a former co-director of the Innocence Project Clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Law.


“That unit of the public defender’s office was responsible for the first case ever in Maryland overturning, on the basis of DNA evidence, the conviction of Kirk Bloodsworth, who was on death row after twice being found guilty of murder,” Judge Karasic wrote.


Mr. Bloodsworth, a former Marine and Eastern Shore waterman, who was convicted in 1985 of the 1984 rape and murder of Dawn Hamilton, a 9-year-old Rosedale resident, became the first American on death row to be exonerated through DNA testing.


He was released from prison in 1993 and pardoned that year.


Mr. Harris was present when Mr. Bloodsworth walked through the prison gates at Jessup, and later told Judge Karasic, “This is what it’s all about.”

When not immersed in legal matters, Mr. Harris enjoyed reading history, following the Ravens, driving his camper throughout the U.S., and being in the outdoors — camping and backpacking with his son.

His marriage to the former Etta Altman ended in divorce.

Graveside services were held Dec. 16 at Shaarei Tfiloh Congregation Cemetery.

In addition to his son, he is survived by two granddaughters. Another son, Alan Harris, died in 1995.