Farewell, friend . . .


Photos by Frank Weir

‘Celebration of life’ held for Chief Public Defender

By Frank Weir
Legal News

Lawyers, court staff, and community members gathered at the Washtenaw County Courthouse March 23 to celebrate the life of Lloyd E. Powell, who died February 23 at the age of 90.

Powell, an alumnus of Wayne State University Law School, officially retired last June as Chief Public Defender, a post he had held since January 1980.

Courtroom 9 was filled to capacity, with many more standing, and included all county judges and 10 speakers, representing the legal community and the community-at-large.

Washtenaw County Prosecutor Brian Mackie was among the featured speakers at the March 23 event, recalling that he first met Powell in 1978 when Mackie joined the Prosecutor’s Office and Powell, then an assistant prosecutor, helped train him.

“He was a respected advocate and respected opponent in court, larger than life, an interesting man,” Mackie said. “He was honored by many in his life and I think we all wish we could have had a retirement party for Mr. Powell rather than this.”

Mackie said Powell, a personal friend, was a formidable trial lawyer as an assistant public defender, assistant prosecutor, and then as Chief Public Defender.

“He was good,” Mackie said. ‘There was one trial he had against John Collins. The two of them were going at it and people started to come to watch as the word got around the courthouse. I heard about it and came in. They were some of the best arguments that I have seen. Lloyd could get away with stuff. There was a manner about him.

“Jurors listened to him. He knew they wanted to be entertained, that the courtroom was theater, and Lloyd wanted to do that for them. When you would see all 12 nodding in agreement with Lloyd, you knew he had them.”

Mackie noted that Powell, who was honored with the Frank J. Kelly Distinguished Public Service Award from the State Bar of Michigan, had a statewide impact with the indigent defense commission. In Washtenaw County, Powell’s efforts to help fund indigent defense work were “ahead of its time,” according to Mackie.

 Chief Public Defender Delphia Simpson worked closely with Powell for many years.

“He opened doors for employment, and he put together values in addition to leading one of the most diverse professional staffs in the county. And community service was a core value to him,” she said.

Simpson said that Powell worked tirelessly on behalf of the community, displaying a particular passion for helping young people.

“He wanted to prevent young people from entering the criminal justice system, but if they did, he wanted them to have a world-class defense,” Simpson said. “He established one of the first community police forums and he wanted to keep the conversation going. It still goes on today and citizens are able to speak directly with law enforcement.

“He loved his county family, his work family, he loved being Chief Public Defender making the lives of many others a bit better. I had a front row seat on a world-class public servant in action.”

Assistant Public Defender Tim Niemann and local defense attorney Joe Simon were the first two public defender interns under Powell’s tutelage. Hundreds of students have come through the program since then, Niemann said.

“He believed strongly in community service, the criminal justice system, in human rights, community collaboration,” Niemann said.

Niemann recalled a first-degree murder trial he second-chaired with Powell. The jury found the defendant guilty of second-degree murder but he died in jail of natural causes while awaiting sentencing. Powell told Niemann their job was not yet done, and the two served as pallbearers for the defendant’s pauper burial.

Washtenaw County Administrator Gregory Dill read a proclamation passed by the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners honoring Powell, and related how Powell came to his office after being named to the top county post.

“Mr. Powell leaned across my desk and said, ‘Young man, I always want you to know, please just do what’s right and that I have your back.’ He’s been a beacon in my life for a number of years,” Dill said.

Laura Dudley, president of the Washtenaw County Public Defender Association, added that Powell fought for a public defenders’ union so that pay for defenders was in parity with that of prosecutors.

“Having a union didn’t always work in Mr. Powell’s favor, but when the union pushed back, he respected the process. Even if he didn’t prevail, he wouldn’t have it any other way. He always fought for us and had our backs. He gave us his knowledge and his expertise,” she said.

David Swartz, chief judge of the Washtenaw County Trial Court, said that Powell was proud of his staff and loved being a public defender. Fittingly, Swartz announced that a space on the second floor of the courthouse will be renamed the “Lloyd E. Powell Memorial Lounge.”

Several state and local political leaders attended the March 23 event as well, including State Representatives Ronnie Peterson and Yousef Rabhi, and State Senator Rebekah Warren. The legislators presented a resolution they sponsored with State Rep. Adam Zemke and Donna Lasinski in honor of Powell, who Peterson said was a mentor and a trailblazer.

“It’s not easy being a public defender to stand up for people who have nothing else in life except this lawyer standing next to them,” Peterson said.

Peterson noted there was initial opposition to Powell’s appointment as Chief Public Defender in 1980. Many felt a prosecutor should not be named to a post representing criminal defendants.

“Lloyd was promoted by prominent Republicans like former Washtenaw County Prosecutor William Delhey because they knew he was just the man for the job. He had a great deal of community support making sure that the appointment took place. It was a statement about African American professionals. Non African Americans weighed in for what was right,” he said.

“And I think Lloyd would be proud of all of us here today, Peterson added. “We make up a rainbow, paying tribute to his life. We are all different colors, creeds, religions.”