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Colleen O'Connor on Being a Criminal Defense Lawyer

"The prosecutor initially saw him as a hardened gangster. I saw the teenage boy."

Why did you go to law school?

It’s rather a long story.

When you went to law school, did you intend to become a criminal defense lawyer?

At the time, I knew only that I wanted to work in the public sector, in one of the following areas: civil rights, constitutional law and/or criminal law.

What convinced you to become a criminal defense lawyer?

I began my career clerking for Washington Supreme Court Justice Robert Utter, an intelligent, thoughtful and compassionate jurist.  As a clerk, I had the opportunity to read the briefs filed by and arguments presented by attorneys at the Washington Appellate Defender Association, and was impressed with their integrity, passion and quality of work.

Have you ever been a prosecutor?  If so, what did you learn from that experience?


Who is/are your mentor(s)?  What have you learned from them?

Justice Robert Utter:  I was given an opportunity to work one-on-one with one of the most respected jurists in Washington.  He helped me to hone my research and writing skills, to reason effectively and persuasively, and to apply the law to real life situations, in cases ranging from worker’s compensation to capital punishment.  More importantly, Justice Utter exemplified the importance of fairness, equity and compassion from the bench.

Suzanne Elliott:  As a judicial clerk, I wrote from an objective viewpoint.  Suzanne taught me to write as an advocate.  Over the years, Suzanne has provided a sounding board in some of my more challenging cases.

Lin Marie Nacht: Ms. Nacht was my supervisor when I began felony practice at SCRAP.  She worked with me on trial skills, and encouraged me to take on more challenging cases, including becoming death penalty qualified.

Tell us about a case you worked on that made you proud to be a defense lawyer:

I represented a teenager charged with two counts of first degree assault in adult court, as an “automatic decline” case.  The charges arose from an apparent gang related shooting, and my client was facing 25 years in prison.  The prosecutor initially saw him as a hardened gangster.  I saw the teenage boy.  Through gaining his trust and that of his mother, conducting a mitigation investigation into his family’s social history and working with Marty Beyer, Ph.D., I was able to convince the prosecutor to reduce his charges and agree to a sentence of five years, which ensured the client would be released around his 21st birthday, thereby avoiding incarceration in an adult prison.

Why do you do criminal defense?

Everyone deserves to have a voice.  To have the assistance of counsel in determining how best to respond to the charges they are facing.  To hold police, prosecutors, judges and jurors accountable.  Over the years, I have also become keenly aware of the prejudice (overt and implicit) against people of color.  So my role has evolved to combating that prejudice one case at a time.

Briefly describe your practice.

For the past 20 years, I have worked as a public defender in King County, at the former Society of Counsel Representing Accused Persons (SCRAP) and now the King County Department of Public Defense SCRAP Division. Most of that time has been in the felony practice, and most recently on an aggravated murder case originally filed as a death penalty case.  Prior to SCRAP, I worked at the Washington Appellate Defender for five years, appearing in both the Washington Court of Appeals and the Washington Supreme Court.

What else would you like WACDL members to know about you/your practice?

I love my work.

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