Lorinda Youngcourt stepped into the complex world of capital defense as a freshly minted attorney. Her first job out of law school was in the capital unit of the Indiana State Public Defender's Office, where she litigated post-conviction petitions on behalf of people sentenced to Indiana's death row. She was 25.
Within three years, she became a capital litigation supervisor for the statewide office, which provides post-conviction representation, and a year later experienced her first significant victory, when James Harris's death sentence was modified to 160 years in prison.
But it wasn't a sense of outrage over capital punishment that drove her as a young lawyer. That came later. She began working on behalf of clients sentenced to death, she said, because of a deep wish to help people and "my god-awful desire to understand why people do what they do."
"I never believed that people were evil," she added. "So I was curious to know: How did you get into this position where this terrible thing happened? What happened in your life? I was never afraid of my clients. I was just very concerned and very curious."
Now, 25 years and some 15 death penalty cases later, Youngcourt heads King County's new Department of Public Defense, overseeing a department of 200 attorneys and another 200 paralegals, social workers, investigators, administrators and other support staff. It seems only fitting that she entered the King County system when she did, as this has been a seminal period in death penalty litigation. Since her arrival nine months ago, juries in two separate capital cases (Joseph McEnroe and Christopher Monfort) chose life-without-parole sentences instead of the death penalty, and in a third matter, the prosecutor withdrew the death penalty notice in the case of McEnroe's co-defendant, Michele Anderson.
"It was deeply gratifying to watch the public defenders in those cases do what it is I always tried to do as a capital defense attorney - and that is, show the jury the humanity of the defendant before them - someone who did something awful, no question about it, but who is, still, a person, a hurting person, a person whose life matters,"" said Youngcourt, who stole moments from her packed schedule to step into the courtroom during the trials. "Our attorneys were masterful and compassionate. It was heartening to watch them fight so vigorously and brilliantly to save someone's life.""
IYoungcourt got her first taste for legal practice after she graduated from Indiana University in 1985 with an undergraduate degree in criminal justice. Her first job was as a secretary in a law firm, where she quickly understood what it meant to be low paid and little appreciated in the status-conscious environment of a firm. That experience stayed with her. Today, she feels considerable respect for the support staff around her and finds it hard to utter the word "secretary," even when that's the county-issued title.
She entered Indiana University School of Law (now McKinney School of Law) in 1988, where her world again turned upside down. To say she didn't care for law school is an understatement. "I hated every minute of it," she said.
But it was in law school that Youngcourt - raised by strict and protective parents - began to see another side of life: one where poor people were hounded by debt collectors and redlined from certain neighborhoods. A professor who taught debtor/creditor law was particularly influential, encouraging her to voice her often strong and passionate opinions, and challenging her to see how a bright and caring lawyer could make a difference in the lives of poor people.
From there, it was an easy step into public defense, where her crusading spirit and background in theater helped her to hone her skills as a litigator. She worked for both the Indiana State Public Defender's Office and the Marion County Public Defender Agency, where she was a major-felony attorney, handling a full felony caseload, including capital work, then opened her own law firm with two others. Marriage took her to rural Lawrence County, Indiana, in the southern part of the state, where she lived on a 100-acre ranch with her husband, a retired Marion County sheriff's deputy, raised horses and ran her own small firm.
IAgain, she focused on capital litigation, serving as a "special public defender" appointed on a case-by-case basis. She also began to develop her teaching career, working as a faculty member at the National Criminal Defense College in Macon, Georgia, the Indiana Trial Practice Institute, and the Indiana University School of Criminal Justice.
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