Champions of Liberty

PDS Historical Timeline


  • The Bar Association of the District of Columbia’s Board of Directors devotes itself to promoting the creation of a criminal and civil legal aid entity that would provide “competent and conscientious legal assistance” and inspire other communities with its “Report of the Commission on Legal Aid of the Bar Association of the District of Columbia” in 1958.

  • Then-Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals, E. Barrett Prettyman, using the report, leads a group of lawyers who go to the United States Congress and advocate for the establishment of an office that will focus on more serious criminal, juvenile delinquency, and mental health cases.

  • Congress establishes the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) under the District of Columbia Legal Aid Act. The purpose of LAA is to represent indigent persons who cannot afford counsel in criminal, juvenile, and mental health commitment proceedings. LAA is located at the United States District Court for D.C. at 333 Constitution Avenue, N.W.

  • LAA breaks with past practice by being entirely government-funded and completely independent from the executive, judicial, and legislative branches of government.

  • First director of LAA is Charles B. Murray.

  • First chairperson of the Board of Trustees is W. Cameron Burton.


  • United States Supreme Court decision in Gideon v. Wainwright champions the right to due process of law, a fundamental principle of fairness in all legal matters, and expands the right to counsel for poor people facing imprisonment at the state level.


  • LAA implements the Offender Rehabilitation Project (now the Office of Rehabilitation and Development), a pilot project funded by the National Legal Aid and Defender Association. It is the first systemic effort in the nation to help public defenders develop rehabilitative services for their clients.  The project incorporates the specialized skills of a social scientist (now a forensic social worker) to investigate and write presentencing reports, and to refer clients to social and health services.


  • American Civil Liberties Union of the National Capital Area presents the Oliver Wendell Holmes Award to LAA for providing quality legal representation to indigent people in the District of Columbia.


  • United States Supreme Court decision In re Gault champions the right to counsel for juveniles in delinquency proceedings and affords many of the same due process rights as adults, such as the right to timely notification of the charges, the right to confront witnesses, and the right against self-incrimination.


  • Throughout the riots in Washington, D.C., following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., LAA lawyers provide continuous (24-hour) legal representation from Friday night, April 5 through Monday night, April 8.

  • Edward A. McCabe becomes the first vice chairperson of the Board of Trustees.

  • Barbara Babcock becomes the first female director of LAA.

  • LAA establishes its intensive training program to prepare lawyers for the courtroom and the responsibilities of a defender. It also introduces the practice of hiring a class of trial lawyers annually.


  • The movement to establish PDS and reorganize the D.C. court system begins.


  • The District of Columbia Public Defender Service (PDS) is established as the successor to LAA under the leadership of Barbara Babcock and Norman Lefstein, who together crafted the 1970 statute that broadened the mandate to include the Appointment of Counsel Division (now the Defender Services Office) and the Offender Rehabilitation Division (now the Office of Rehabilitation and Development), and secured the apolitical role of the Board of Trustees that preserves PDS’s autonomy.


  • PDS becomes “effective” and moves to 601 Indiana Avenue, N.W. under the leadership of Barbara Babcock.

  • Following the May Day arrests of about 1,000 anti-war demonstrators who threatened to close down the Capitol and marched at rush hour on the grounds of various government buildings, PDS attorneys on motorcycles find the demonstrators locked in the Robert F. Kennedy football stadium. PDS files a petition for habeas corpus, and, following a moonlit hearing, makes the case for immediate release of the defendants. Over the next few days, PDS defends individual demonstrators in need of legal services.


  • When the director of the D.C. Department of Corrections and several correctional officers were held hostage for 24 hours during the D.C. Jail Disturbance, resident representatives are brought to a late-night emergency hearing held by the U.S. District Court Judge William B. Bryant, before whom litigation challenging conditions at the jail is pending. At the judge’s request, PDS attorneys and some members of the private bar interview more than one hundred jail inmates who seek legal advice concerning their grievances. The interviews take place throughout the night and early morning hours of October 11–12.


  • During the first Criminal Justice Act (CJA) attorney strike, due to cut-backs in congressional funding, PDS defends its program — a controlled caseload to ensure the highest quality legal representation — when the Superior Court strongly encourages PDS to take all of the CJA cases. PDS does, however, work closely with the Court to coordinate a large-scale draft of private attorneys to take cases.

  • PDS establishes the Correctional Services Program to provide legal services to D.C. prisoners that address criminal law-related problems, institutional administrative matters, and civil matters by referral to organizations (services now provided by the Parole Division and the Prisoner & Reentry Legal Services Program). The program is funded by a grant from the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, United States Department of Justice.

  • PDS is designated an exemplary project and model for other jurisdictions by the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration of the United States Department of Justice resulting from PDS’s exceptional advocacy and proven success through individualized and continuous client representation, comprehensive training, non-legal resources, effective management and administrative systems, involvement with the private and court-appointed defense system, and law reform.


  • PDS moves to 451 Indiana Avenue, N.W. under the leadership of PDS Director J. Patrick Hickey.


  • PDS implements the Criminal Law Internship Program (then, the Volunteer and Intern Program) to address the problem of increasing demands for investigative services without the prospect of additional funds being allocated for that purpose.


  • Francis Carter becomes the first African-American director of PDS.


  • Despite PDS and Superior Court Trial Lawyers Association (SCTLA) efforts to increase the miserly hourly rates for CJA attorneys in court, most CJA attorneys eventually go on strike. During the strike, PDS steps in to handle the heavy caseload while also convincing local law firms to provide pro bono representation. PDS provides those firms with training to support their efforts. Eventually, PDS becomes overloaded with cases and, with support from its independent Board of Trustees, notifies the Court that it will no longer handle the overflow of CJA cases. Taking this action forces the D.C. government to increase rates for CJA lawyers.


  • PDS establishes the Juvenile Services Program pursuant to authorization by the D.C. Council to provide assistance to children who are detained or committed at the District of Columbia Children’s Center in Laurel, Maryland (now New Beginnings), and the Receiving Home for Children in Northeast Washington (now Youth Services Center).


  • Washington Post article cites the Criminal Law Internship Program (then the Student Internship Program) as one of the finest pre-law experiences available.


  • Under pressure by the judiciary and the PDS Board of Trustees to quickly recruit more lawyers of color, PDS undertakes a concerted and thoughtful effort to increase the number of lawyers of color it hires.


  • PDS files the Jerry M. lawsuit, aspects of which are ongoing today, successfully challenging the District of Columbia’s failure to provide adequate care and rehabilitation services for detained and committed children.

  • Cheryl Long becomes the first female African-American director of PDS and of a public defender office.


  • PDS creates the Prisoners' Rights Program (now the Prisoner & Reentry Legal Services Program), a program to serve as the PDS liaison to individuals convicted of D.C. Code offenses and held in correctional facilities, and to provide information to assist these individuals and monitor their conditions of incarceration.


  • PDS establishes a special litigation counsel position (now the Special Litigation Division and the Special Counsel to the Director for Legislative Affairs) to monitor and offer comments on proposed legislation (at the D.C. Council and in Congress), court rules, sentencing guidelines, and Department of Justice policies, and to handle the Jerry M. class action; other civil, habeas, and related matters; and unconventional appeals.

  • PDS successfully lobbies for pay parity for its lawyers to ensure its salary schedule is on par with their counterparts at the United States Attorney’s Office.


  • PDS adopts the use of Trial Practice Groups to provide continuing legal education and formal case analysis opportunities for attorneys.

  • PDS begins to take a broader look at indigent defense on the national level, recognizing that as a premier provider of public defender services, it has an obligation to participate in the national dialogue about crime and criminal defense.


  • Under PDS Director Jo-Ann Wallace’s management, PDS is established as a federally funded, independent legal organization governed by an eleven-member Board of Trustees, preserving all programmatic aspects of the model public defender system under the National Capital Revitalization and Self-Government Improvement Act of 1997 and its 1998 amendments.


  • PDS moves to 633 Indiana Avenue, N.W. under the leadership of PDS Director Jo-Ann Wallace.

  • PDS implements a “team defense” model for the holistic representation of juvenile clients, having trial lawyers collaborate with forensic social workers, special education attorneys, and public benefits specialists.

  • PDS establishes the Community Defender Office (now the Community Defender Division, which includes the Juvenile Services Program and the Prisoner & Reentry Legal Services Program) to provide information, referrals, and quality legal services for committed youth and adults who are in the post-adjudication stage of a criminal case in the District of Columbia’s justice system.


  • PDS files the litigation that leads to the adoption in 2002 by the U.S. Parole Commission of deadlines for resolving parole and supervised release revocation cases (Long v. Gaines). Before the litigation, individuals accused of violating their parole or supervised release conditions could spend longer in pre-adjudication detention than the length of the maximum sentence they were facing.

  • The number of cases involving forensic science is increasing in the District of Columbia and across the nation, and court-appointed defense attorneys need to become skilled in using this science in the courtroom — a daunting challenge given the degree of technical difficulty inherent in scientific matters. As a result, PDS establishes the PDS Forensic Practice Group, a dedicated group of PDS lawyers who learn and train on matters of forensic science in the courtroom.

  • PDS expands its Duty Day Program, a program to respond to telephone and walk-in requests for assistance by the public and criminal justice practitioners regarding legal matters, to include social services, parole, and mental health matters, thereby involving the staff and expertise of its legal and legal support services divisions.

  • PDS creates its own case-tracking software, Atticus, that provides comprehensive case management functionality, and allows case-related information on each client to be shared across the organization.

  • PDS administers a court-instituted training and certificate program for Criminal Justice Act investigators.

  • PDS establishes the Civil Legal Services Unit (now the Civil Legal Services Division (CLS)) to assist children and adults with legal issues related to special education, public benefits, and immigration. CLS provides wraparound services addressing issues facing children in the delinquency system that often hinder their successful reintegration into the community, including special education advocacy for children in the public school system who cannot be adequately educated in a traditional classroom setting due to learning disabilities or other physical or intellectual challenges, as well as other rehabilitative needs of these children. CLS also addresses the needs of adult clients by providing representation in civil matters arising out of their criminal charges. In addition, CLS offers expert consultation for attorneys with clients in the criminal justice system who face immigration consequences.


  • PDS launches a custom-developed, comprehensive database-driven website that contains information about the organization; training, internships, law clerkships, and employment opportunities, as well as legal issues relevant to the local criminal justice community.

  • PDS collaborates with the Superior Court to establish a continuing legal education program for CJA lawyers.

  • PDS hires its first-ever legal recruiter to oversee the process of recruiting and hiring qualified attorneys, including working with law schools to set up the fall interviewing process, coordinating on-campus and callback interviews, and managing the summer law clerk program.


  • The Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia awards its Servant of Justice Award to PDS for its faithful dedication and remarkable achievement in ensuring that all persons have equal and meaningful access to justice in the District of Columbia.

  • The Criminal Law Internship Program (CLIP) is ranked in the 9th edition of the Best 109 Internships by the Princeton as one of the most hands-on internship programs in the nation, stating the program is "a criminal law internship at its in-your-face best." (This was the last edition of the publication by the Princeton Review.)

  • In celebration of the 40th Anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, PDS and the PDS Alumni Association sponsor an essay competition for public senior high school students in the District of Columbia.

  • PDS establishes the first annual forensic science conference geared toward the court-appointed defense community. The conference is funded by a grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance, Department of Justice.

  • PDS opens its state-of-the-art Defender Training Center equipped with an electronic moot courtroom for legal training and trial preparation purposes.


  • PDS and the Family Court create practice standards for panel lawyers representing children charged with acts of delinquency, and offers a training certification series for attorneys interested in admission to the juvenile CJA court-appointed panel.


  • PDS establishes a forensic science fellowship (initially grant-funded) to assist lawyers with forensic expertise, research, and analysis.

  • PDS establishes its annual Expungement Summit (now the Community Reentry and Expungement Summit) to assist local residents who have been charged with or convicted of D.C. Code offenses and who seek legal information, reentry support services, the sealing of arrest records, and the expungement of convictions.

  • The Community Defender Division begins to handle parole release cases, complementing the Parole Division’s parole revocation practice.

  • PDS develops a timeline of its history and accomplishments.  The project involves interviewing former directors and alumni and reviewing historical documents and significant reports about PDS.


  • PDS collaborates with the Innocence Project, the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers to create, a comprehensive defense resource for litigating eyewitness identification cases.


  • To address the increasing need to use and analyze technology during the investigative phase of a criminal case and for the preparation and presentation of evidence and exhibits for display in the courtroom, PDS incorporates investigative protocols and tools in its practice. These tools include social and business online resources, digital forensics extraction, trial presentation software, and an upgraded media room for reviewing and analyzing electronic evidence.

  • The National Legal Aid and Defender Association issues the report PDS: A Model of Client-Centered Representation, which highlights the PDS program as a “beacon of hope” for its client-centered representation. The report refers to the skilled attorneys who meet early and often with their clients to help them make informed decisions about their pending charges, and who remain their clients’ counsel, when appropriate, throughout the life of the case. Other notable features include PDS’s political and judicial independence and its workload limitations.


  • A pilot mental health legal specialist position is established in the Trial Division to address the serious mental health issues in clients’ criminal and delinquency cases.


  • PDS establishes a two-year juvenile justice fellowship position that offers training and practical experience in juvenile delinquency cases, exposure to juvenile justice policy issues, and the opportunity to mentor the succeeding class of new PDS attorneys representing juvenile clients.

  • The Southern Center for Human Rights presents its 14th Annual Frederick Douglass Award to PDS for its 50 years of service and its demonstration of what it means to champion the rights of the underserved.


  • The Foundation for Criminal Justice honors PDS with its first-ever Guardian of Liberty Award for PDS’s efforts to promote positive law reform through vigorous defense in criminal cases and by the promotion of the highest standards for the representation of the indigent.

  • At a forum on "Defending Childhood and Youth: An Approach to Ending the Cycle of Violence," at Harvard School of Public Health, U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr. acknowledged that PDS is “…the best public defender’s office in the country.”

  • PDS’s litigation in the Supreme Court and subsequently in the District of Columbia Court of Appeals leads to the end of the U.S. Attorney’s Office ten-year practice of serving as private prosecutors pursuing criminal contempt charges in the name of and on behalf of private citizens rather than in the name of and on behalf of the federal government.

  • PDS successfully challenges the constitutionality of the District of Columbia’s civil forfeiture practices and later helps to negotiate statutory protections for people whose property had been civilly forfeited, restricting the Metropolitan Police Department’s ability to arbitrarily seize and indefinitely hold property, including where the individual had not been charged or had had their case dismissed.


  • PDS proves the innocence of three men in three different cases who had served more than seventy years combined in prison for offenses they did not commit, ultimately triggering a broad, ongoing federal review of convictions based on hair and fiber evidence dating back decades before 2000 (when prosecutions began to rely on DNA evidence). Only one other exoneration has been identified and successfully litigated in the District of Columbia — and that was 23 years ago.


  • PDS creates a criminal law blog dedicated to following and dissecting the criminal law decisions of the D.C. Court of Appeals that includes concrete examples of how a particular decision can be used effectively at either or both the appellate and trial levels.

  • PDS enters into a memorandum of agreement with the District of Columbia that improves education and transition services for children committed to the custody of the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services.

  • PDS helps draft amendments to the District’s 2006 criminal record sealing law that allow for more people to request the sealing of records of arrests that did not result in convictions.

  • PDS helps to obtain legislation that for the first time allows terminally ill people serving determinate misdemeanor sentences to apply for compassionate release. These individuals can now avoid unnecessary incarceration at the end of their lives and spend that time with their families.


  • PDS establishes the Criminal Defense Trial Practice Institute to help students cultivate effective trial advocacy skills and explore public defense work.  The one-week Institute is designed to support law students from traditionally underrepresented minority groups, students from financially disadvantaged backgrounds, and/or students from law schools that lack criminal defense and trial advocacy training opportunities.


  • To strengthen the legal knowledge and skills of the CJA appellate panel, PDS creates an Appellate Training Director position as a two-year pilot project.  One of the most respected legal minds in the District’s legal community, former PDS Appellate Division Chief James Klein manages the project and provides the training.

  • PDS updates its website, launching a modern and intuitively designed site to support PDS’s recruiting, training, and client outreach efforts.

  • The Forensic Practice Group creates a pilot Forensic Biology and DNA Clinic, the first of its kind at a public defender office in the United States.  The clinic is modeled after law school clinics, where experienced students are exposed to actual cases while receiving specialized training and supervision. This program provides a valuable service to indigent defendants and their attorneys in the District of Columbia who can benefit from the students’ specialized knowledge in forensic biology and DNA analysis.

  •  The Forensic Practice Group implements a Forensic Science Internship to help ensure that forensic science issues are litigated in a comprehensive and strategic manner, consistent with the stated interest of the individual client and the mission of PDS.

  • PDS’s exposure of the flaws in the testimony of FBI hair examiners (through its four exoneration cases) led the Department of Justice to conduct a review of 30 years of cases in which similar testimony resulted in convictions. The massive inquiry includes 2,600 convictions and 45 death-row cases from the 1980s and 90s. In April 2015, the Department of Justice and the FBI, following a review of 200 convictions, formally acknowledged that nearly every hair examiner (46 of 48) in the FBI’s forensic unit gave flawed testimony in almost all trials in which they offered evidence against defendants. The cases include 32 defendants sentenced to death.
  • Understanding the importance of addressing the immigration rights and crimmigration issues impacting its clients in criminal cases, PDS hires an immigration staff attorney to work in its Civil Legal Services Division.


  • PDS starts a pilot project to make Atticus, PDS’s case management system, available on staff’s smart phones. This allows attorneys and investigators to make real-time updates to cases and obtain case information in the field when needed. 
  • PDS develops and launches an electronic personnel on-boarding and off-boarding system, which produces reports that assist PDS with personnel tracking, data analysis, and audits.


  • PDS undertakes a much needed document conversion, archiving, and retention project to progress toward becoming a more “paperless” environment.  The importance of careful preservation of client files cannot be overstated. PDS’s work exonerating four men who had spent decades in prison relied both on the development of new technology and the ability to recreate the record of the investigation and the trial proceedings. In three of these cases, PDS’s client files from the 1970s and 1980s provided critical documentation that was not available from either the court or the government. PDS’s ongoing work on potential exoneration cases also relies heavily on materials for which the PDS client file is the only source. Because PDS has handled and continues to handle the majority of the serious offenses in the District, its client files are disproportionately made up of cases in which convicted clients received substantial sentences, and, thus, their files deserve extended retention and protection.


  • PDS takes on new client representation responsibilities as a result of the Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act (IRAA).  IRAA allows individuals who have already served 20 years of incarceration for an offense committed prior to age 18 to petition the Superior Court for a lesser sentence. Each of these new IRAA cases requires a tremendous amount of investigation of factual and mental health issues, mitigation work, and document retrieval. For each case, PDS must gather and review material covering at least a 20-year period in order to assist the client in taking advantage of this re-sentencing opportunity.
  • The Trial Division establishes a Mental Health Practice Group (MHPG) to enhance PDS’s practice in this complicated field.  The MHPG is made up of a small group of attorneys in the Trial Division who specialize in mental health litigation. An MHPG member meets with a trial attorney who has asked for legal support in a criminal case where mental health issues are involved.  The member works with the client, makes recommendations and is the point of contact for experts, attends hearings regarding mental health issues of the client, and co-counsels competency hearings and trials where an insanity defense is raised. 


  • PDS is honored by the Washington Lawyers' Committee with the Alfred McKenzie. The award recognizes the work PDS and others have done as members of the Compassionate Release Clearinghouse, a group formed to receive and manage the many requests for legal assistance submitted by those who want to exercise their rights under the local and federal compassionate release statutes.