The former district public defender for Anne Arundel County, Stephen E. Harris, has been named Maryland's new chief public defender, it was announced yesterday.
Harris, 52, will succeed Alan H. Murrell, who headed the state agency that provides legal services for indigent clients in criminal cases since its creation in 1971.
Harris's appointment to the $82,000-a-year post becomes effective Sept. 1.
The board of trustees that oversees the public defender system selected Harris from a field of seven candidates that included Murrell's deputy, Alfred J. O'Ferrall III, and J. Theodore Wieseman, public defender for Montgomery County.
Harris, a graduate of the University of Baltimore Law School, had been with the public defender system from its inception until last month.
Murrell, 88, said yesterday that he is pleased by the selection and had recommended Harris. "He was one of our best trial lawyers," Murrell said. "He tried a great number of death penalty cases quite successfully and saved the lives of a lot of people. We have 17 people awaiting death sentences right now, and not one was represented by Steve Harris."
Harris said that in his new position he hopes to continue Murrell's legacy of independence and passion in representing Maryland's poorer citizens, and foresees making few major changes in the way the office operates, other than a few key personnel moves.
"Like Alan, I am a firm believer in the constitutional guarantee of competent legal representation for everyone," Harris said, adding that not even a vicious knife attack on his parents three years ago swayed him from that belief.
William W. Cahill Jr., a Baltimore lawyer who is chairman of the Public Defenders Board of Trustees, said Harris was chosen also for his strong administrative skills and ability to work within a set budget. The Public Defender's Office has a staff of 450 statewide and a $30 million annual budget, but its advocates complain that it has been chronically underfinanced and left without sufficient resources to hire expert witnesses and support personnel.
"Murrell was a respected old-time attorney . . . . Harris won't have that kind of entry when he goes down there with problems. They'll be waiting for him with a knife and a gun if he overspends the way Murrell did," said T. Joseph Touhey Jr., an Annapolis defense lawyer who preceded Harris as head of the Anne Arundel Public Defender's Office.
Harris said yesterday that he hopes to control his agency's spending by doing a better job of screening potential clients to determine whether they are indigent or simply in search of free legal services.
He also said he hopes to cut down on the fees the agency pays to private lawyers by beginning a pro bono program that would encourage criminal lawyers in private practice to provide free legal services.