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Public defenders open Medford office

The federal office will take over for private lawyers who have been handling such cases

Charged with a federal crime? You're in luck. Federal officials expect to open a federal public defenders office in Medford in July.

We're looking forward to serving the clients, the court, and the bar by setting up the office, said Federal Public Defender Steven Wax of Portland. The caseload generated by the United States attorney's office has increased to the point where it makes sense to have a full-time federal defender presence to provide that assistance.

The new office will be at 15 Newtown St. in downtown Medford. It is expected to open July 1. There will be two assistant public defenders, an investigator and a secretary in the office. The cost of putting an office in Medford is estimated at &

36;400,000 in the first year. That money, though, is basically being shifted from federal money that was used to pay the private attorneys who previously handled all the federal criminal public defense work in Southern Oregon, Wax said.

The state's public defender system has one federal public defender, who is appointed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, and 20 assistant public defenders. They currently have offices in Eugene and Portland.

Public defenders are available for people who cannot afford private attorneys.

Very few people can afford to retain counsel (when accused of federal crimes), Wax said. Many people charged have no assets and those who do have assets, the government may seize that. Someone who was flying high when charged with a federal crime might find themselves with nothing.

Federal criminal courts have very different rules and longer sentences than state courts. Currently, people charged with a federal crime in Southern Oregon who can't afford their own attorney are defended by one of a panel of private attorneys with expertise in federal law. The new public defender's office will take on a number of those cases, but also provide advice and expertise to the private attorneys who will continue to handle the bulk of the cases.

Federal defense is a specialty, Wax said. It requires day-to-day work to keep up with nuances ' we can be there to help the lawyers in private practice by our presence.

In addition to providing more expertise, the new office will allow defense attorneys to have immediate contact with people accused of federal crimes as opposed to taking the time to find a private attorney who can take the case, Wax said.

U.S. Assistant Attorney Bob Thomson said he welcomes the new defense team to Medford.

We are very well served when we have good advocates on the other sides of our cases, Thomson said. We want (defendants) to get the best representation possible so we don't end up fighting issues on appeal.

The federal prosecutor's office was established in Medford in 1997. Last year, it indicted 150 cases, Wax said. Wax said he expects that the federal public defenders will handle a variety of criminal cases, including fraud, immigration, weapons offenses, drugs, bank robbery and environmental crimes.

Already, two of the people who will work in Medford are on board: investigator Allen Hallmark and Assistant Federal Public Defender Don Mixon. Wax said he is in the process of hiring the other positions.

Hallmark has been with the federal public defenders office for seven or eight years. He previously lived in the Rogue Valley and worked as a reporter at the .

Mixon is moving from Miami to take the job. He said the position originally advertised was in Portland and he was interested, but when they called and said the it was the Southern Oregon division, it was full-court press.

I actually have been researching Oregon for a long time and decided the Rogue River Valley is kind of an undiscovered jewel, Mixon said.

During his 13 years in Miami, Mixon worked as a private attorney, an assistant U.S. attorney and a federal public defender. He said it's not such a big switch to go from prosecuting federal crimes to defending people accused of them because the job on both sides is really about defending the Constitution.

In order for the system to function well you have to have a good, fair fight, Mixon said. And both sides abide by the same rules.

Reach reporter Dani Dodge at 776-4471, or e-mail