Alan H. Murrell, 84, remembers walking into a courtroom here fresh out of law school in 1937 and seeing people who couldn't afford a lawyer being treated like "pieces of meat" to be swallowed by an insensitive judicial system.

Later, during 44 years as a criminal lawyer, Murrell said he often felt powerless to change the system. But since 1971, when he was appointed Maryland's first chief public defender, he has fought for clients too poor to hire legal help.

Murrell, who state officials said is the oldest program administrator in Maryland, relishes the challenge, considering his office one of the last strongholds of the accused's constitutional rights. But, he admits, it has been a lonely struggle.

"They [legislators] don't care about us, and the public doesn't care," Murrell said in a recent interview in his office here. "If a person commits a crime, they'd rather see him locked up, have the key thrown away and, if there's anyone left, gas them. It's a cruel system.

"Hell, even the clients don't like us. They say they want a real lawyer."

Murrell acknowledges having engaged in bruising battles with state legislators, who wince at deficits his office has recorded in 12 of the 14 years he has been chief, including the $520,000 the department overspent last year. The confrontations expanded this year over a dispute that led the General Assembly to force the state's public defenders to stop working on private practice cases during office hours.

Murrell believes that before the state's public defender office was created in 1971, public defender positions were a testing ground for "neophytes" and incompetent court-appointed lawyers, who often were more interested in getting rid of nonpaying clients to make time for those who would generate revenue.

During his tenure, Murrell's staff has grown from 12 lawyers to 184, making it one of the largest public defender systems in the country, according to Peter Cohen, acting director of the defense division of the National Legal Aid and Defender Association.

The Maryland system, with an annual budget of $15 million, defends 100,000 clients a year and has a "great reputation for doing good work," Cohen said.

The system's deficits also have ballooned. Because of costs associated with using expert witnesses and handling growing caseloads, Murrell said, it is impossible to budget his department's fiscal needs accurately. According to his deputy, Alfred (Mickey) O'Ferrell, the system recorded its largest deficit -- $1.3 million -- in 1982.

Most state administrators would fear running in the red, grounds for being fired in Maryland, but Murrell takes it calmly. "I don't pay attention to that because I'm providing a constitutional right," Murrell said. "But it does bother me in the sense that people feel it is a reflection of my inability to run this office."

"I have no control over the number of people the police lock up every day . . . We can't refuse anyone if they are indigent and qualify for counsel."

In the past, the state has transferred money from Murrell's budget for the subsequent fiscal year to pay bills until the General Assembly approves a deficit appropriation, according to H. Louis Stettler III, secretary of the Department of Budget and Fiscal Planning. Stettler said he recognizes that the public defender caseload cannot be controlled.

Some law enforcement and state government officials, however, are not as understanding. Del. Timothy Maloney (D-Prince George's), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on law and transportation, said he respects Murrell, who, despite his age, "still raises hell." But Maloney said he considers Murrell a stubborn entertainer whose "show" has been playing reruns for the seven years.

"He makes a great speech about how he's defending the Sixth Amendment and the right of the indigent," Maloney said. "But his argument is the same one used by the Park Service: 'If you don't give us every penny we ask for, then you're against Bambi.' Murrell's basically saying the same thing: 'If you don't give us every penny we ask for, then you're against the Sixth Amendment.' That's not the case."

Murrell and Maloney have been at odds since Maloney joined the Appropriations Committee seven years ago. They clashed again this spring when the legislature told Murrell to limit his public defenders' private practice work to evenings and weekends.

Public defenders are paid by the state and are not allowed to practice criminal law privately. They may, however, practice civil law privately, including contracts, wills and divorces. Many of them say such private practice is necessary to supplement their state salaries.

The average salary for public defenders is $35,000 a year, which is lower than the salaries of the state's assistant attorneys general and some county prosecutors. Murrell, as head of the department, makes $66,000.

Maloney said Murrell started the recent controversy by asking the legislature to control his staff's private practice because Murrell believed some public defenders were doing too much private work at the expense of their public jobs. Murrell denies having introduced the issue; he said the new restrictions, which resulted in the resignations of two public defenders, are solely the work of state lawmakers.

The issue has demoralized the public defenders, many of whom cannot afford to give up the private practice, said James E. Kenkel, district public defender for Prince George's County. Kenkel questioned whether Murrell has diligently pursued pay increases for the staff.

"He's my boss and I support him publicly," Kenkel said. "But I always wish we were more aggressive in pursuing salaries that can maintain quality attorneys." Murrell insists that he has requested higher salaries but has run into a wall of opposition at the state's Department of Personnel.

Del. Paul Muldowney (D-Washington), also a member of the House Appropriations Committee, supports Murrell. "He's fought damn hard for his people," Muldowney said. " . . . If he's got one shortcoming it might be that he's salty and sarcastic. Sometimes that gets in the way and some people might misinterpret that."

Maryland's public defender office began operating in 1971 with a $1.2 million budget. Yet, despite the budget growth since then, the office still runs out of notebooks, legal paper, pens and pencils every May, according to one former public defender.

Although some of Murrell's lawyers say he has slowed down because of his age, they still consider him an effective leader and administrator. Henry Engel, district public defender for Harford County, said most people are astounded to learn that Murrell is 84. "His age hasn't hurt the office," Engel said.

Because Murrell considers the public defender system a reflection of his personal attitude toward criminal defense, he has vowed to hire only the most experienced and professional trial lawyers who share his philosophy.

"Our first objective isn't to win or lose, but to make sure that when the case is disposed, our client had equal justice," Murrell said. "That's the whole ball game . . . . All we get out of it is a sense we gave him the client the best we had to offer. Of course, that's not much consolatation if a client is sitting in a cell block."

"Most of our people never seem to get burned out," he said. "The work is an exciting challenge, and every once in a while someone gets found not guilty. It's a mental boost when someone gets caught up in the criminal justice system and they are looking to you for help."