Forty years ago, a humble temporary office on the second floor of the Hannibal Courthouse ushered in an impactful change for legal proceedings in Missouri’s 10th Circuit Court and beyond.

Forty years ago, a humble temporary office on the second floor of the Hannibal Courthouse ushered in an impactful change for legal proceedings in Missouri’s 10th Circuit Court and beyond.

Municipal Judge Fred Cruse came to Hannibal after serving for three years as a defense attorney and prosecutor in the U.S. Marine Corps. With help from area officials like retired 10th Circuit Judge Robert Clayton II, Cruse opened the first public defender office for the 10th Circuit on July 1, 1977. During those years, public defenders have increasingly provided vital legal representation for clients who otherwise could not afford to hire an attorney.

Cruse said before 1977, public defender offices existed primarily in larger communities like Columbia, Kansas City, Rolla, St. Louis and Springfield. If a defendant needed a public defender, the court appointed an attorney for them — who may or may not have received payment. He said that many people helped make the 10th Circuit office a reality in a region that needed the service. At the same time, offices opened in Franklin County, Cape Girardeau, Kennett and Platte County. Following this expansion, the public defender system grew to cover the entire state, Cruse said.

Cruse said before he came to Hannibal, he was involved in 209 court martial proceedings as a prosecutor or defense attorney from July 1, 1975 to June 30, 1976 — the year the process changed from court martial convictions to administrative undesirable discharges. Cruse noted that three of the five public defenders offices opened in 1977 were started by former military lawyers.

In the beginning, the small, temporary office posed some challenges that required creative solutions. Cruse said a partition consisting of a frame, door and ill-fitting section of plywood separated his office from his secretary’s — he had to ask her to leave during confidential conversations, because the sound would travel above and beyond the plywood section. Clients had to wait in the hall outside for privacy reasons, too.

Shortly after Cruse arrived as public defender, he worked with the late Harry Mitchell from Palmyra to defend a man from the military charged with capital murder in Hannibal. Following a three-day trial, the jury found their client not guilty.

“If you’re defending someone, and the jury finds them not guilty, that’s a heck of a deal for a lawyer,” Cruse said. “We keep track of those.”

Later, the temporary office was relocated to the basement of the courthouse, with crews digging out the new space from beneath the west side of the building. The partitions were stronger now, but clients still waited in the hall so that conversations remained confidential within the office. And Cruse remembered how staff members worked around a large column supporting the courthouse in those days.

Clayton agreed with Cruse that the public defender program has made a positive impact in the area, recalling his journey toward becoming an assistant public defender in the 10th Circuit.

Clayton said he was fortunate to participate in a pilot program in 1964, during his senior year of law school. Clayton and fellow students interviewed prisoners and received training for becoming a public defender. He received a grade and a $250 payment that he used to purchase a motorcycle.

Clayton recalled that Cruse was the first public defender in the 10th Circuit, and he worked as an assistant public defender during those early years. Clayton said Judge James Reinhard appointed him as an assistant public defender, and he represented four defendants in murder trials. He remembered that the preparation for each of those cases took a great deal of time.

“I was glad, and I know all the lawyers in private practice were glad to get a defenders system here,” he said.

Clayton has noticed a variety of changes over the course of four decades, particularly through a much larger case load and more full-time public defenders under the supervision of a director. Cruse said he noticed that in the early years, the process for defendants to receive the services of a public defender were approved in almost every instance. Extenuating circumstances, like income that surpasses a certain level, can result in the court finding that a defendant is ineligible to receive the services of a public defender. And Cruse pointed out that the Hannibal Municipal Court has a system for appointing attorneys for defendants, but that applies to offenses like stealing that could carry a jail sentence.

Clayton remembered when the program started, defendants were unsure what sort of representation they would receive. As the program grew and more public defenders stayed for longer periods of time, defendants realized they could count on excellent legal representation. Clayton noted that the statewide program is currently in need of funding as caseloads and staff sizes have grown in the 10th Circuit and across the state.

“We’ve got some really talented criminal lawyers here,” Clayton said. “I dare say that the defendants who do not have to pay for it are getting a real bargain.”

Reach reporter Trevor McDonald at trevor.mcdonald@courierpost.com