In three decades of defending accused criminals as an assistant Prince George's County public defender, Joseph M. Niland has earned a reputation as one of the best criminal defense attorneys in the county, a go-to-the-wall lawyer who will fight ferociously for his indigent clients.

Niland once had a client accused of rape drop his trousers for the jury, to show tattoos that the victim hadn't described. In the late 1970s, a judge held Niland in contempt of court when he refused to defend one client because the man was not indigent; the judge later rescinded the contempt order and the man had to hire a private attorney. Every time one of his clients is led out of the courtroom in handcuffs, Niland steps into the hallway to make sure no juror sees the defendant in manacles.

"A very aggressive advocate for his clients," said Upper Marlboro lawyer William C. Brennan.

"You have to be at the top of your game against him," said Assistant State's Attorney Fran Longwell.

"He'll push the envelope as far as he can for his client," said Circuit Court Judge William B. Spellbring Jr.

"He has a 'smash mouth' approach to trying cases," Circuit Court Judge Graydon S. McKee said, using a football term for tough, fearless players who don't hesitate to throw themselves into the fray.

Niland has wasted no time funneling the same aggressiveness from the courtroom to his new role as an administrator, as the public defender for Prince George's County. The state public defender's office appointed Niland acting public defender March 18 and named him permanent public defender in late April. Niland replaces former public defender Maureen M. Lamasney, who was appointed to the Circuit Court bench in December.

Shortly after he was named acting public defender, Niland sent letters to the chiefs of about 30 area police forces, including the Prince George's County police department, informing them that a public defender would now be on call at all times, day or night, weekends included. Niland himself will be the one on call much of the time.

"I don't expect to get many calls, but at least it's there. Nobody can say they don't have the opportunity to call the public defender's office 24 hours a day, seven days a week," Niland said. In cases in which defendants undergo marathon questioning by detectives--a tactic often used by the Prince George's police--Niland said he and his 33 assistant public defenders could question defendants and detectives in court as to whether suspects were made aware of the availability of the public defender.

"The criminal population of Prince George's County has had to have set some kind of record for not ever asking for an attorney," Niland said, chuckling sarcastically.

Niland also is changing the way cases are assigned to the lawyers in his office, who handle 5,600 District Court, Circuit Court and Juvenile Court cases annually.

For years, cases were divided by jurisdiction: District Court, where all criminal cases begin, and Circuit Court, where most felonies are tried. A criminal case can move from District Court to Circuit Court by way of indictment or preliminary hearing in front of a judge.

Niland is changing the process so the same assistant public defender will stay with a case as it wends its way through the system. That way, attorneys can become familiar with a case and develop a more effective strategy from the outset, Niland said.

"I think it will better serve our clients," Niland said.

With his shock of snow-white hair, Niland--who bears a resemblance to the actor Jason Robards--is a familiar figure in the courthouse where he has worked since the early 1970s. His gray-blue eyes twinkle with joy as he describes the pleasure he gets from engaging in hobbies such as carving wooden ducks and whales; they also can flash with fury when arguing a legal point in court.

Niland, 61, has four adult children and lives in Laurel with his third wife, Joan, a schoolteacher.

He grew up in western Maryland, in the Cumberland area, and joined the Army, serving as a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division from 1956 to 1959.

After completing his military service, Niland attended the University of Maryland while working part time in construction, primarily for state contractors. He helped build parts of the Capital Beltway and various tunnels and bridges.

Niland received his law degree from the University of Maryland law school in 1969 and kept working in construction for another year before working in private practice from 1970 to 1974. He joined the county's public defender's office in 1974, left in the late 1970s for private practice and returned to the office in 1985.

Over the years, Niland has defended six men facing the death penalty; one ended up on Death Row.

Last month, opposed by highly regarded Assistant State's Attorney Robert L. Dean, the former top prosecutor in Montgomery County, Niland represented a Suitland man accused of killing the young daughter of his girlfriend and other charges. The man was acquitted.

Though he could have made far more money in private practice--the salary of the public defender is just under $68,000 annually--Niland has not seriously considered returning to private criminal defense work since he rejoined the public defender's office in 1985.

"This is what I like to do. If you want to do major criminal defense work, this is the place to do it," Niland said.

"I think the principle [the public defender's office upholds] is of major consequence, the constitutional requirement that everyone has the right to counsel before their liberty can be taken away," Niland said. "If you don't believe in that, you shouldn't be here."

Criminal defense lawyers said Niland is generous with his time and knowledge.

James N. Papirmeister, a highly regarded Prince George's County criminal defense lawyer, said Niland is always willing to share his insights when he asks for advice.

Stephen Harris, the state public defender who appointed Niland, has Niland speak to newly sworn-in assistant public defenders every year.

"I can think of no better lawyer to impart his lawyering skills and his enthusiasm," Harris said. "I think he has the ability to motivate, to impart his enthusiasm."

Though he is now primarily an administrator, Niland said he won't leave the courtroom completely. He has two cases pending and plans on doing one or two cases a year, including death penalty cases.

"I like to be in trial; I like to be in a courtroom," Niland said. "I like the concept of antagonism and the concept of advocacy and the battle scene situation of a courtroom. I like to think I'm doing something worthwhile."

CAPTION: "Nobody can say they don't have the opportunity to call the public defender's office 24 hours a day, seven days a week," Joseph M. Niland said.

CAPTION: Joseph M. Niland was named public defender for Prince George's in April.