Virginia's Public Defender to Retire

Frank Dunham will retire in a few days from his job as head of the federal public defender's office for the Eastern District of Virginia. Dunham established the office in Virginia just before the rash of government terrorism cases.

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In just a few days, Frank Dunham will retire from his job as head of the Federal Public Defenders office for the eastern district of Virginia. If you haven't heard of Frank Dunham, you may have heard his voice on this or other programs, defending the rights of enemy combatants and accused terrorists. The 9/11 attacks threw him into the midst of some of the most complicated terror cases in history.

NPR's Larry Abramson has this profile.

LARRY ABRAMSON, reporting:

Frank Dunham likes to joke about the odd mix of cases that dropped in his lap when he started up the first federal public defender's office for Eastern Virginia.

Mr. FRANK DUNHAM (Federal Public Defender, Eastern District of Virginia): In those cases I've had one client who can't talk to me, another client who fired me and thinks I'm trying to kill him, and a third client who originally didn't want to follow my advice at all on anything. So, that's been a big success, I guess, as far as I'm concerned.

ABRAMSON: The defendant Dunham couldn't talk to was Yassar Hamdi, who was then being charge as an enemy combatant, and it was admitted terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui who refused to deal with Dunham. Moussaoui became Dunham's first client before he'd even gotten the Office of Public Defender fully established.

Michael Nacmanoff came over to the Public Defenders Office with Dunham.

Mr. MICHAEL NACMANOFF (Federal Public Defender, Eastern District of Virginia): When he was assigned Moussaoui he didn't have any assistant defenders to help him. He didn't have any storage area. He didn't have any resources whatsoever, but when the court said this is the first case we want you take he was ready to take it.

ABRAMSON: The Moussaoui trial quickly developed into a mix of legal laboratory and circus. Somehow Dunham had to keep the entire process from careening out of control. In juke of 2002, Moussaoui announced he didn't want Dunham's help. He wanted to defend himself. Outside the courthouse that day, Dunham stood in the pouring rain and talked to the press about how his next move.

Mr. DUNHAM: We were trying to find a lawyer who could get in and re-establish some confidence with the man. We think that it's a disaster in this case; there's no way he can get a fair trial representing himself. He needs to have counsel.

ABRAMSON: Dunham and his team were put back on the case, but that was just the beginning of a legal odyssey that is only now going to trial. Dunham shuttled tirelessly up and down Interstate-95 for Moussaoui as the case bounced around the Fourth Circuit. When the prosecution refused to let the defense question al Qaida captives, Dunham persisted, pushing every legal button to get a fair trial for a man accused of a role in the crime of the century.

Dunham has approached the whole process with a sense of humor that is one of his trademarks. His unique role has secured Frank Dunham a steady stream of speaking invitations from law schools interested in his new field of Terror Law. Here he is at Catholic University, his alma mater, in early 2003.

Mr. DUNHAM: You really only get two questions from your clients when you first meet him on our job. And the first question is I didn't do it, which is a statement. The second question is, how much time am I going to get.

ABRAMSON: As if the Moussaoui trial weren't challenging enough, Dunham decided on his own to defend Yassar Hamdi, who was held without charge as an enemy combatant for three years, only to be released by the government in 2004. That case took Dunham all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he won Hamdi the right to challenge his detention. His directness in addressing the High Court is vintage Dunham.

Mr. DUNHAM: And here there is no law. If there is any law, it is the executive's own secret definition of whatever enemy combatant is. And don't fool yourselves into thinking that that means somebody coming off of the battlefield, because they've used it in Chicago. They've used it in New York and they've used it in Indiana. These detentions are not lawful. And I would respectfully ask the Court to step up to the plate and say so.

ABRAMSON: It wasn't the challenges of the job or age that have persuaded Frank Dunham to retire. He's at home now battling cancer, an unlucky twist for a man chosen by fate to play an unusual and critical role in legal history.

Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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