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April 18, 2014

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Long arm of the law wouldn’t fit in his office

Public defender thrives on job that’s part tough love

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Leila Navidi

The small, windowless office where public defender Ben Saxe works isn’t much bigger than a jail cell. The 2001 UNLV Boyd School of Law graduate was inspired to become a defense attorney when he was a clerk for then-District Court Judge Joseph T. Bonaventure.

Ben Saxe must really love his job as a criminal defense attorney, because he’s sure not in it for the perks.

His office is about the same size as the prison cells some of his clients end up in. It’s windowless, too. To give the walls some color he hung a National Geographic poster of birds. He has no use for birds but the pictures are pretty. The couch in his office belongs in the rumpus room of a fraternity house.

He can’t brag about making partner or buying a second home thanks to billable hours because the public pays his salary and his clients get his services for free.

Some of those clients abuse Saxe with their claims of innocence even though he knows better. But he does the righteous, noble thing, protecting their constitutional rights and campaigning for the prosecutor or judge to throw a little compassion their way when it is deserved.

Welcome to the world of the public defender’s office.

Saxe, who is a member of the first graduating class at UNLV’s Boyd Law School in 2001, joined the staff of 112 lawyers after clerking for then-District Court Judge Joseph T. Bonaventure, a suffer-no-fools jurist who lorded over some of the town’s most sensational trials.

Saxe’s stint with Bonaventure included the retrial of Rick Tabish and Sandy Murphy, who had been convicted in Bonaventure’s courtroom in 2000 of killing Ted Binion. (The pair’s conviction in the first trial was overturned by the state Supreme Court on a technicality.) The pair were acquitted of murder in the retrial.

For all the sensation of the retrial, it was the day-in, day-out routine in Bonaventure’s courtroom that persuaded Saxe to become a criminal defense attorney. A lot of it was serious stuff, but one case took a comical bent.

“A guy from China owed the Rio $1.5 million. He said he had it, but had to go back to China to get it. He said he would leave his wife here for collateral.” Yeah, right, Bonaventure said.

After earning his law degree, Saxe was undecided about his future and landed a grunt-level job at a San Diego newspaper. He assembled sports stats and compiled the fishing report.

Imagine, a lawyer writing about sharks.

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