Andrew Dys

'Model' public defender gets state appointment

York County Public Defender Harry Dest stands in court with defendant Janice Smith in 2003.
York County Public Defender Harry Dest stands in court with defendant Janice Smith in 2003.

Exactly four years ago today, a lady named Janice Smith poured her abusive father a glass of wine. She then proceeded to shoot him three times. He proceeded to die.

In jail, she met a man on the other side of the bars. That man, Smith told me Tuesday, "saved my life."

The man wore a tailored black suit. His hair was slicked back. The tie, silver, reflected light like a mirror. The black shoes shone. He looked like he belonged defending Brooklyn gangsters.

But that man was the York County chief public defender, Harry Dest. A man who has spent the past 17 years of his life in York County courtrooms protecting the broke who don't have a nickel to pay him.

"Every day after, Harry Dest worked to find a way to give my side of the story, to protect me," Smith said Tuesday.

Thursday night at the York County Courthouse, Dest becomes the first man in South Carolina to be sworn in as a judicial circuit public defender. A new law passed this summer changed the state's public defender offices from county-based to circuit-based. Dest was nominated by his legal peers in the 16th Circuit, covering York and Union counties, and approved by the state's indigent defense commission.

"Harry Dest is a model of what a public defender should be," said Leland Greeley, a Rock Hill lawyer who chaired the York County Bar Association's selection committee.

S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal will swear in Dest on Thursday. A big deal.

Yet, all Dest wanted to tell me Tuesday is how the system will improve for the poor and the public and the taxpayers who pay the tab.

"A new day," Dest said. "This benefits everybody."

The change is in management structure because some counties have slow, overloaded dockets, said Patton Adams, executive director of the commission. Public defender offices throughout the state that formerly had individual operation styles will now all work the same way by next year, Adams said.

That state public defender management style is already close to the Dest style, said the guy who for more than a decade opposed Dest in court, Tommy Pope. Dest has run the York County public defender office for 10 years. Pope and Dest worked together for years to turn the county's overloaded court docket from a swamp into a model for the state.

Yet, hundreds of times Pope, the former 16th Circuit solicitor, squared off in court with Dest. Pope, now in private practice, said that never changed his admiration for Dest. Dest has "distinguished indigent representation to what it is supposed to be. Quality for those who can't afford a lawyer."

Dest has been chosen for this job because he has experience managing a successful public defender office.

But that is not what Harry Dest has meant to the poor of York County.

Pope called Dest's service to the poor "an issue of the heart."

When the United Way recently wanted to put out a Men of York County calendar, Dest raised money and was chosen. The suits and hair probably didn't hurt his chances of turning into Mr. January, either.

Yet even with a pretty face, it is not easy to be the public face of the accused. Some of Dest's clients have used guns and knives to kill and maim people. Dest has gone to work every day, all these years, and fought to make sure those people got a fair shake.

Sometimes it meant guilty verdicts in trials. Sometimes plea deals where 30 years was the best he could do.

Greeley put it this way: "The title is appropriately 'public defender,' because that is exactly who he is," Greeley said. "Harry defends the public. The poor. It is, for him, a calling."

Sometimes when the person did kill someone, Dest the digger in the Armani suit found out why.

I spoke Tuesday to a man named Richard Hinton. In October 2003, Hinton stabbed a man to death. Dest and Deputy Public Defender B.J. Barrowclough never told 12 jurors months later that Hinton didn't stab the guy. Dest argued, after finding people who knew, self-defense that night after years of abuse.

Richard Hinton, never in trouble before or since, put it bluntly to me Tuesday as he sat free in Rock Hill: "Harry Dest, he saved my whole life, big time."

Dest didn't tell a judge or anybody else Janice Smith was innocent, either. He and staff spent months finding people who could show Smith had been abused all her life by her father. Smith pleaded guilty to a lesser charge than murder -- offered by Pope's office in light of the abuse -- and Smith went to prison. Dest remained her lawyer, making the case for parole.

Smith was paroled last year after 21 months. She lives in York County with her family.

Harry Dest went on Oprah Winfrey's show, and twice appeared on Larry King's show, to tell the world what he did for Janice Smith.

Smith told me something the day she got out of prison that she repeated Tuesday about Harry Dest. "I could have died in jail if it wasn't for him," she said.

Then she said how some bigshot lawyer had written to her while she was in prison, saying he would take her parole case for free from then on if she chose him. Smith declined.

"There was no way I was giving up on Harry Dest," Janice Smith said. "Because Harry Dest never gave up on me."