Farewell, friend: Celebration of Life held for long serving Washtenaw County Chief Public Defender

Photo by Frank Weir

By Frank Weir
Legal News

Lawyers, court staff and community members gathered at the country courthouse March 23 to celebrate the life of LLoyd E. Powell who died Feb. 23 at the age of 90. Powell, an alumnus of Wayne State University Law School, officially retired last June as Chief Public Defender, a post he had held since January 1980.

Courtroom 9 was filled to capacity, with many more standing, and included all county judges and 10 speakers, representing the legal community and the community at large.

Washtenaw County Prosecutor Brian Mackie, noted he first met Powell when Mackie joined the prosecutor’s office in February 1978 and Powell, then an assistant prosecutor, helped train him.

“He was a respected advocate and respected opponent in court, larger than life, an interesting man,” Mackie said. “He was honored by many in his life and I think we all wish we could have had a retirement party for Mr. Powell rather than this. But we knew he would never leave. Good for him.”

Mackie said Powell, a personal friend, was a formidable trial lawyer as an assistant public defender, prosecutor, and Chief Public Defender.

“He was good,” Mackie said. ‘There was one trial he had against John Collins. The two of them were going at it and people started to come to watch as the word got around the courthouse. I heard about it and came in. They were some of the best arguments that I have seen. Lloyd could get away with stuff. There was a manner about him.

“Jurors listened to him. He knew they wanted to be entertained, that the courtroom was theater, and Lloyd wanted to do that for them. When you would see all 12 nodding in agreement with Lloyd you knew he had them.”

Mackie noted Powell, who was honored with the Frank J. Kelly Distinguished Public Service Award from the State Bar of Michigan, had a statewide impact with the indigent defense commission and his work in Washtenaw County in funding indigent defense was ahead of its time.

Chief Public Defender Delphia Simpson worked closely with Powell for many years.

“He opened doors for employment, he put together values in addition to leading one of the most diverse professional staffs in the county. And community service was a core value to him,” she says.

Simpson noted she saw him work tirelessly for the community, and his passion for young people. “He wanted to prevent young people from entering the criminal justice system but if they did, he wanted them to have a world-class defense. He established one of the first community police forums and he wanted to keep the conversation going. It still goes on today and citizens are able to speak directly with law enforcement.

“He loved his county family, his work family, he loved being Chief Public Defender making the lives of many others a bit better. I had a front row seat on a world-class public servant in action.”

Assistant Public Defender Tim Niemann and local defense attorney Joe Simon were the first two public defender interns. Thousands of students have come through the program since then, Niemann said.

“He believed strongly in community service, the criminal justice system, in human rights, community collaboration,” Niemann said.

Niemann recalled a first-degree murder trial he second-chaired with Powell. The jury found the defendant guilty of second-degree murder but died in jail of natural causes while awaiting sentencing. Powell told Niemann their job was not yet done, and the two served as pallbearers for the defendant’s pauper’s burial.

Washtenaw County Administrator Gregory Dill read a proclamation passed by the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners honoring Powell and related how Powell came to his office after he was named administrator.

“Mr. Powell leaned across my desk and said, ‘Young man, I always want you to know, please just do what’s right and that I have your back.’ He’s been a beacon in my life for a number of years.”

Washtenaw County Public Defender Association President Laura Dudley noted that Powell fought for a public defender’s union so that pay for defenders was in parity with that of prosecutors. “Having a union didn’t always work in Mr. Powell’s favor but when the union pushed back, he respected the process. Even if he didn’t prevail, he wouldn’t have it any other way. He always fought for us and had our backs. He gave us his knowledge and his expertise,” she said.

Judge David Swartz, who noted that Powell was proud of his staff and loved being public defender, announced that a space on the second floor of the courthouse will be renamed the Lloyd E. Powell Memorial Lounge. 

Several state and local political leaders attended including State Representatives Ronnie Peterson and Yousef Rabhi, and State Senator Rebekah Warren, who presented a state resolution they sponsored with State Rep. Adam Zemke and Donna Lasinski, and passed by the state legislature.

Powell was a mentor and trailblazer, Peterson said. “It’s not easy being a public defender to stand up for people who have nothing else in life except this lawyer standing next to them,” he said.

Peterson noted there was opposition to Powell’s appointment as Chief Public Defender in 1980. Many felt a prosecutor should not be named to a position representing criminal defendants. “Lloyd was promoted by prominent Republicans like former Washtenaw County Prosecutor William Delhey because they knew he was just the man for the job. He had a great deal of community support making sure that the appointment took place. It was a statement about African American professionals. Non African Americans weighed in for what was right,” he said.

“And I think Lloyd would be proud of all of us here today, we make up a rainbow, paying tribute to his life. We are all different colors, creeds, religions.”


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