Herbert A. Putney, the man colleagues say helped change the face of criminal defense in Oregon, is stepping down as leader of Southern Oregon Public Defender Inc.

Herbert A. Putney, the man colleagues say helped change the face of criminal defense in Oregon, is stepping down as leader of Southern Oregon Public Defender Inc.

"I'll miss the people, but I've had enough. Everybody has a shelf life," Putney said.

On Friday, Dec. 3, Putney, 68, will receive the Ken Morrow Lifetime Achievement Award from the Oregon Criminal Defense Lawyers Association in recognition of his 25 years at the helm of SOPD.

Last Wednesday, Putney gazed out the window of his office, looking back a quarter-century and remembering the day in 1985 when his secretary interrupted him while he was teaching a legal class to say that he and his partners, Frank DeSimone, a former deputy district attorney, and Bob Warren, a former judge, had been awarded state funding to create the new office.

"That was pretty exciting," Putney said.

Putney said the new office was necessary to protect the rights of indigent clients — those in poverty who lack food, clothing and other necessities — who were sometimes not getting the representation every citizen deserves.

"There were 40 to 45 attorneys doing good, bad and indifferent work," he said. "Some were very good. But there were also some who really didn't measure up."

Putney's team of 24 attorneys is dedicated to representing the rights of indigent defendants in Jackson and Josephine counties. If they can't pass muster, they're gone, said Andy Vandergaw, 68, who has been with the office for 14 years. Putney was instrumental in establishing state guidelines for public defenders, he said.

"Bert was highly involved in devising a plan for the whole state," Vandergaw said.

Doug Engle, 54, will succeed Putney as the administrator of SOPD in February. Engle is a former prosecutor and director of Los Abogados, another consortium of local attorneys that has a contract with the Oregon Office of Public Defense Services. He was one of the first two attorneys Putney hired when SOPD opened its doors.

"There is no attorney in town more respected than Doug," Putney said. "He has the highest ethical standards."

Engle met Putney in 1983 and remembers watching Putney square off against prosecutors as a trial attorney.

"He was good," Engle said. "He was crafty. He was confident. You were always a little bit worried he knew something you didn't."

Putney said he was drawn to become a public defender because of ethical dilemmas he faced during his 15 years in private practice. Getting his client a fair divorce settlement was relatively easy compared with handing that newly-single mom a legal bill that cut deeply into her budget, he said.

"I was never sure if I was doing more harm than good for people," Putney said. "I always had some personal difficulties getting money from people who really couldn't afford it."

Defending the indigent helps protect society, the rights of the accused and the Constitution. But you won't get rich, Putney said, noting that public defenders don't make as much as district attorneys. The DA's office is funded by the county. SOPD paychecks come from the state.

"There's a huge gap between the salaries we have and those the prosecutors have," he said. "And, if anything, our job is more difficult than a prosecutor's."

Putney has created his legacy by setting a good example and high standards, said Peter Gorn, 38, who manages SOPD's drug-court cases for Jackson County.

"Bert has a good eye for competent attorneys," Gorn said. "He's also a very decent, down-to-earth person with an unimpeachable character."

Part of Putney's job is to oversee what his attorneys are doing in court, then suggest or demand changes to their defense strategies, Vandergaw said.

"Bert has definitely run his program," he said. "I've seen attorneys go because they didn't meet the standards of this office."

Citing the example of a former employee who misrepresented the material facts of a case, Gorn said Putney discovered the ethical violation and terminated the offending attorney.

"He was gone the next day," Gorn said. "If someone is not competent as an attorney, or not honest with Bert, they're not going to last long."

Putney is proud of the fact that two presiding Jackson County Circuit Court judges, Lorenzo Mejia and Lisa Greif, came from SOPD, he said.

"I like watching the successes of the people we have here," Putney said. "I firmly believe that if you put people where they can succeed that they will succeed."

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or e-mail sspecht@mailtribune.com.