Innovative Palm Beach County public defender Richard Jorandby dies

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Richard Jorandby, who won national renown as a crusading Palm Beach County Public Defender, and who was especially well known for the work his attorneys performed in death penalty cases, died May 21 of cancer. He was 73.

Jorandby held office for 28 years before he was defeated in 2000 by current public defender Carrie Haughwout.

That defeat ended a career marked by innovation and a commitment to defend the poor, his former assistants say. Jorandby created a unit that handled death penalty appeals in various Florida counties. His assistant public defenders argued a total of five cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and were nationally recognized for their expertise in death penalty appeals. His partner in that effort was his chief assistant, Craig Barnard, who died in 1989 at age 39.

Jorandby also started a counseling program for defendants, an alternative sentencing program and an ex-offender employment program. In 1985, a National Institute of Justice study pointed to Jorandby's office as an example of how to defend poor people in a cost-effective way.

Jorandby, a Republican, was elected the same day that President Richard Nixon was re-elected in 1972. He was not known as a criminal defense attorney, but his former employees described him as a top notch administrator who helped them win cases anyway he could.

"Any kind of expert you needed on case, he would find the money," remembers West Palm Beach criminal defense attorney Richard Lubin, who worked under Jorandby as an assistant public defender from 1974 to 1976. "He always stood behind his assistants. I loved him for that."

Margaret Good-Earnest, head of the appeals division under Jorandby, said her former boss believed that the biggest threat to the country was a legal system that could lock a person up and take their rights away without proper cause.

"He was a Republican who really believed in standing up for the rights of the poor," she said.

He is survived by his wife, Cheryl, and two daughters Abigail and Lantie.

Jorandby's election defeat in 2000 brought him legal problems of his own. He was convicted of election misconduct for soliciting campaign contributions over $500 and coercing attorneys who worked for him to contribute. Jorandby pleaded guilty to nine misdemeanors, was sentenced to one year's house arrest and paid fines.

His former assistants, many of whom are now prominent attorneys and jurists in South Florida, saw that is an unfortunate coda to an inspiring career.

In his 2002 book "Death Work," another former assistant public defender, Michael Mello, said Jorandby "combined an iron will with a field commander's breadth of vision and a chess player's guile" in organizing his capital appeals unit. He called Jorandby "the most honorable and decent" man he had known.