Richard Hillary retires after long career of service to the defense of the indigent

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by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Dick Hillary has virtually no regrets about his 39 years as a public defender, which include a full 35 as director of the non-profit Kent County Office of the Defender, and now he has very few about his recent retirement.

“Every day is Saturday,” he says about his well-deserved rest. Always an early riser, he loves the slow pace of his days. He can wake up at 3:30, go and work out, come back and read the paper over coffee, and then do whatever he wants – even take a nap.

Still, he says, as the Michigan Indigent Defense Counsel (MIDC) standard number four takes effect, mandating that a client be represented at “first appearance,” Hillary intends to apply to provide counsel at arraignments.

While acknowledging that most area judges do a good job of telling the accused about how the court system will work and the consequences of what they say, Hillary thinks that such representation is a very good idea for people who may be intimidated or confused by the proceedings.

“In my opinion, it gives them a feeling like, ‘Hey, someone’s watching out for me from the get-go.’ You can kind of take some of their nervousness and anticipation away,” he says.

The Kent County Office of the Defender participated in a pilot project with the 63rd District Court in 2014, which was considered to be highly successful and is mentioned in the MIDC white paper on the standard. Hillary notes that the assistance will likely be conducted by video-conferencing.

The main thing he says he misses about his many years at the office is the collegiality. “Well, 39 years is a long time, and I think a lot of people if they really enjoyed their job like I did miss the people. Probably over the years I had 50 attorneys working for me, some are deceased and some are in private practice. But they were good, bright, dedicated people, along with the staff,” Hillary says.

“We’d talk about our cases, we’d laugh about our cases, we’d cry about our cases. So you have that constant exchange of humor and frustration and legal knowledge. You don’t get that in too many places, that type of communication. So, you miss something like that.”

But to balance, Hillary has a large and interesting family, which includes wife Katie, two sons and a daughter – son Richard Hillary Jr. is an attorney at Miller Johnson, son Scott is a financial advisor, and daughter Holly is a school principal – and nine grandchildren. All of them live nearby, and Hillary Sr. himself has spent most of his life in the Grand Rapids area.

He was born here, attended Catholic Central High School, received his history degree from Aquinas College with a minor in sociology and an elementary education teaching certificate, taught school here, and commuted from here to Lansing to attend Cooley Law School before there was a Grand Rapids campus.

However, he did take one major detour along the way. After finishing his education, he and a cousin joined the merchant marines.

“I became an able-bodied seaman,” Hillary explains. “I worked on a tramp steamer for a little while – we visited India, West Pakistan, Singapore, Japan, all over,” Hillary explains.

“When I was somewhere in the middle of the Indian Ocean, I got drafted, but I never got the letter. So I went down to the board and explained I wasn’t trying to avoid the draft and they canceled the warrant. It was just a little piece of paper back then. They drafted me and I spent a year in the states and then to Vietnam.

“Back then, you had to use the GI Bill offer of education within ten years. So I decided to go to law school, and I commuted back and forth to Lansing. I estimated I drove three and a half times around the world,” he says with a grin.

Hillary knew that he wanted to be either a prosecutor or a public defender, and that he wanted to stay in Grand Rapids. His initial application to the prosecutor’s office was unsuccessful. “I was not hired by the prosecutor’s office, even though I made it to the final interview, but I was hired by the defender’s office. Looking back now I’m glad that I ended up there because that’s where my heart is,” he says.

Originally working under Patrick Bowler as director, Hillary was offered the position when Bowler became Judge Bowler. Hillary says that it was always a well-run office, but it is clear that he gets a lot of the credit for the county’s long success in representing the indigent.

During the MIDC process, Kent County’s non-profit organization was held up as a model for other counties. Although it does operate as a non-profit, all of its funding comes from Kent County itself.
(Employees are not, however, Kent County employees, though Hillary himself has suggested that change and it has been brought up for years.)

In addition, Hillary says, his office only takes about half the cases; private lawyers, whom he says are “good competent attorneys,” contract with the courts to do the other half. The Office of the Defender also benefits from students who are with the WMU-Cooley Grand Rapids campus Defender Clinic.

For his efforts, Hillary has won a number of awards, including the Marion Hilligan Award from WMU-Cooley during the joint Law Day in 2012, which is co-sponsored by the Grand Rapids Bar Association. He was GRBA president in 2008-2009, and he co-chaired the committee exploring jury minority representation to find ways to ensure that the diversity of the area is reflected in the “jury of one’s peers.”

In retrospect, Hillary says that the most important change he can remember over his career was the introduction of sentencing guidelines in 1984.

“You used to have to pretty much guess at the sentencing habits of the judges and it was very, very difficult to tell your client what would happen if they accepted a plea bargain. Now, all of the judges pretty much stay within the range suggested by the guidelines, and I think you’re able to resolve  cases more easily. You’re able to tell your client with more accuracy what to expect,” he says.
Over his career, Hillary says that there were four cases that stood out for him, all of them rather grisly murder cases. He did not get any of the defendants off, which he regards as positive.

“I’ve always looked at criminal defense as making sure that the police, the prosecutors, and the judges are doing their jobs correctly. I know some defense attorneys would do anything to get a ‘not guilty,’ but when you go home at the end of the day, if you made the others do their jobs correctly that’s a victory.”

Hillary certainly also feels that being able to use DNA evidence was a major trend for change in his years in office.

He sees that many of the changes suggested by MIDC will have similar impact in the future. Though his office always had strong continuing education requirements, he recognizes that reducing the allowed caseload comes with financial repercussions. On a brighter note, he thinks that the pressure from other counties may cause Kent County to agree to pay increases for the attorneys.

Because of such factors, it is fitting that Chris Dennie has taken over as director. He worked as a staff attorney at the Kent County Office of the Defender for 13 years, before leaving in December 2015 to become the West Michigan regional manager for the MIDC. He says he enjoyed the MIDC?work but finding out that Hillary was leaving allowed him to pursue a personal goal.

“Mr. Hillary is an icon in Grand Rapids and under his leadership, the office has a strong reputation for providing excellent defense services to our clients,” Dennie comments.

“The MIDC standards are addressing needed fundamental improvements to how defendants are represented. My focus is to use my experience here and my experience with the MIDC to increase the resources at our disposal to create an increasingly client-focused representation,” he adds.

Comments Hillary, “Chris is a great one to have in there because his knowledge of the MIDC and his connections are really going to benefit the office and, what’s most important, the clients.” ­

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