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Oral History KY PD System



Contact: Jessie Luscher



Oral history of Kentucky’s public defense system released

Public defense provides high public value

FRANKFORT, KY (March 14, 2017) – Today, 45 years ago, House Bill 461 sponsored by Representatives Kenton, Graves and Swinford passed the Kentucky Senate 26-5 and Kentucky’s statewide public defense system was born. It implemented the right to counsel guaranteed to all facing a loss of liberty. The right to counsel stands above all constitutional rights because counsel enables the ability to assert all other rights. This week also is another important anniversary. On March 18 fifty-four years ago the United States Supreme Court landmark ruling in Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963) declared that the right to counsel was required for indigents facing a loss of liberty and that the state must provide counsel to indigents.

To commemorate the state’s implementation of the constitutional right to counsel for indigents, the Department of Public Advocacy and the Kentucky Historical Society today release an oral history of the Kentucky public defense system. 

Mount Vernon attorney Jerry Cox, Chair of the Public Advocacy Commission, said the public value of public defense is extraordinary, “There are substantial financial benefits to counties, the state, and Kentucky taxpayers when public defense systems are properly funded. Public defenders who are competent, who have manageable workloads, and who have professional independence make certain that the rights guaranteed by our Constitution are protected and ensure that no one’s liberty is taken unless proven guilty. Public defenders lower costly incarceration rates by being present at first appearances and advocating for pretrial release; advocating for reduced sentences based on the facts of the case; developing alternative sentencing options that avoid incarceration and provide treatment; assisting clients upon adjudication with reentry needs including, employment and housing; and preventing expensive wrongful convictions. It all began in 1972 and has continued to make progress through the leadership and support of many good Kentuckians.”

The series of oral histories include:

  • Robert "Bob" Ewald and A. Wallace "Skip" Grafton describe their involvement and experiences with the initial proposal to create a defender program and eventual establishment of the statewide public defender system.
  • On October 17, 1972 in Louisville, then Governor Wendell H. Ford announced the appointment of the first chief public defender, Anthony M. Wilhoit. Governor Ford said, "there can be no civilized enforcement of criminal law without full legal assistance to the accused. This we shall have! I am today announcing a public defender program for the Commonwealth of Kentucky." Former Chief Public Defender Anthony "Tony" Wilhoit describes his time serving as the first Chief defender from 1972-1974. He discusses the challenges and supporters of the Department.
  • Former Public Advocate Jack Farley discusses the history of the Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy from 1975 to 1983. Mr. Farley describes his involvement and experiences while serving as Kentucky's second appointed Public Advocate. He relates the creation of the Public Advocacy Commission, Local Assistance Branch, and the Defender Task Force under Governor John Y. Brown.
  • Former Deputy Public Advocate William "Bill" Ayer was the first attorney hired by Tony Wilhoit. He describes the early days of the public defender program.  
  • Paul Isaacs recounts his service as Public Advocate from 1983-1991. He was the third attorney hired by Tony Wilhoit. His goal was to make sure every person facing a loss of liberty “has an attorney, who is a good attorney, effective, and represents them to the fullest ability under the law.”
  • Allison Connelly was Kentucky's first female appointed Public Advocate. She served from 1992 to 1996. She talks about passage of HB 388 that amended KRS 31.185 and 31.200 to create a fully financed expert witness fund across Kentucky, which has helped clients receive necessary funds for experts to challenge the state’s evidence.
  • Ernie Lewis speaks to his navigation of the system moving from contacts to full-time delivery of services from 1996 to 2008. Kentucky’s delivery system progressed from 18 full-time offices covering 47 counties to 30 offices covering 120 counties. 

In commenting on the value of public defense to the Commonwealth, Public Advocate Ed Monahan said the department’s return on investment in public defense is high, “DPA remains a workhorse of state government. In Fiscal Year 2016, courts in every county appointed DPA to represent clients in more than 158,000 trial and appellate cases. Statewide, DPA’s trial case appointments increased 2.9% over the prior year. This is up from 137,923 cases in 2006.  Like the Department of Corrections, DPA has no ability to control its workload. Its work is being accomplished with funding of $267 per trial case.  DPA’s award-winning Alternative Sentencing Worker Program presented 2,215 alternative sentencing plans for persons with substance abuse or a mental illness who would otherwise be sentenced to prison.  For every dollar spent on the DPA alternative sentencing program, there was a savings to the state of $5.66 that would have been spent elsewhere. Over $11 million in prison costs were saved in FY 2016 as a result of this nationally recognized work.”

The oral histories and transcripts of them are available on the Kentucky Historical web page at: 

If you experience technical issues, we suggest trying Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox as your web browser for listening to these, rather than Internet Explorer. 

DPA’s Annual Litigation Report for July 1, 2015 through June 30, 2016 is an account of the public value of public defense, one client at a time. The Report can be found online at:

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