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November 26, 2014

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Public defender list cut to three candidates

The list of potential candidates to take over the Clark County public defender's office has been narrowed down to three, County Manager Thom Reilly announced Thursday.

The top three finalists are Phil Kohn, who heads the county's special public defender's office, Thomas Pitaro, a prominent local defense attorney, and Jeff Thoma, who heads the public defender's office in Mendocino County, Calif.

Thoma is licensed to practice law in Nevada, Reilly said.

The office has for two months been searching to fill the position of public defender left open by Marcus Cooper, who retired from the embattled office in January.

The remainder of the selection process, which will continue during the next few weeks, will consist of one-on-one interviews with Reilly and a presentation by each candidate to the staff at the public defender's office, Reilly said.

"From what I understand, we have a very qualified group," he said. "Hopefully within the next few weeks we'll have our next public defender."

Kohn, whose office has handles only murder cases and the majority of the county's death penalty cases, said this morning that he's excited about being a candidate for public defender.

"The county has recognized that having a strong public defender is crucial to the criminal justice system," he said. "Good indigent defense is as important to our community as good prosecution."

Kohn added that several high-profile murder cases have had to be retried in recent years, which has cost the county a lot of money. "These cases need to be done right and done once," he said.

Pitaro and Thoma could not immediately be reached for comment.

The two panels that selected the finalists consisted of several members of the Nevada Bar and also included Assistant County Manager Catherine Cortez Masto and Esther Langston, dean of the social work department at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

The first panel reviewed materials from 17 applicants from nationwide and recommended seven to be interviewed. The second panel interviewed those seven candidates throughout the day on Wednesday and whittled the list of seven down to the top three, Reilly said.

The three final candidates have not been ranked, Reilly said. Both panels met last week.

The selection process will continue with the top three candidates making a presentation to the staff of the public defender's office within the next two weeks, Reilly said. Written feedback from the staff concerning each of the presentations will be passed on to Reilly.

The interviews with Reilly will follow and Reilly will make the final decision. The top candidate will be ratified by the Clark County Commission, as is the procedure with the hiring of all department heads, Reilly said.

County officials hope the chosen candidate will help to turn around an office that came under fire during Cooper's tenure.

A report by a nationally known research agency, the Spangenberg Group, in January 2001 was critical of the office for bringing just 156 of 28,898 indigent defense cases, or 0.6 percent, to trial in 1999 when the national average was 4 percent to 7 percent.

A report released in April by the National Legal Aid and Defender Association -- a report called for by Cooper -- outlined similar deficiencies within the public defender's office.

Cooper, 55, had held the position since 2001 and had worked as a deputy public defender for 24 years before being hired to take charge of the office. Cooper was getting an annual salary of $158,260 when he retired.

Before retiring, Cooper hired Indiana attorney Terry Richmond as the office's first training director, who will create a program to help attorneys develop their legal and trial skills. Richmond was expected to begin this month.

In selecting the county's next public defender, Reilly said he will consider characteristics such as the candidate's skill as an attorney, particularly in dealing with the indigent population, as well as the candidate's ability to manage others.

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