The Story of PDS: 64 Years as a Model Defender Program



  • Supported by its 1958 Report of the Commission on Legal Aid of the Bar Association of the District of Columbia, the Bar Association’s board of directors promotes the creation of a criminal and civil legal aid entity that would provide “competent and conscientious legal assistance” and inspire other communities.
  • Using the report, the chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals, E. Barrett Prettyman, leads a group of lawyers to advocate before Congress for the establishment of an office that would focus on serious criminal, juvenile, and mental health legal cases.
  • Congress establishes the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) under the District of Columbia Legal Aid Act. The purpose of LAA is to represent individuals who cannot afford counsel in criminal, juvenile, and mental health commitment proceedings. LAA is located at the U.S. District Court for D.C. at 333 Constitution Avenue, N.W.
  • In contrast with past practice, LAA is entirely government-funded but is completely independent from the executive, judicial, and legislative branches of government.
  • Charles B. Murray is named the first director of LAA.
  • W. Cameron Burton is appointed the first chair of LAA’s board of trustees.



  • 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 PDS Office of Rehabilitation and Development), a pilot project funded by the National Legal Aid & 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.



  • The U.S. Supreme Court decision in In re Gault finds that juveniles in delinquency proceedings have a right to counsel and to 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 not to incriminate themselves.



  • Throughout the riots in Washington, D.C., following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., LAA lawyers provide continuous (24-hour) legal representation to protesters from Friday night, April 5, through Monday night, April 8.
  • Edward A. McCabe is appointed the first vice chair of LAA’s board of trustees.
  • Barbara Babcock is named director of LAA, the first woman in that role.
  • LAA establishes its intensive training program to prepare lawyers for the courtroom and for the responsibilities of a defender. It also introduces the practice of hiring a class of trial lawyers annually.


  • A movement begins to establish PDS as the successor to LAA and reorganize the D.C. court system.



  • PDS is established as the successor to LAA under the leadership of Barbara Babcock and Norman Lefstein. Together, they crafted the 1970 statute that broadened the organization’s 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 that secured the apolitical role of the board of trustees, thereby preserving PDS’s autonomy.



  • PDS moves to 601 Indiana Avenue, N.W.
  • 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 RFK 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.


  • Norman Lefstein is named director of PDS.
  • As the director of the D.C. Department of Corrections and several correctional officers are held hostage for 24 hours at the D.C. Jail, residents are brought to a late-night emergency hearing held by 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 residents who seek legal advice concerning their grievances. The interviews take place throughout the night and early morning hours of October 11–12.



  • When cutbacks in congressional funding lead to a strike by Criminal Justice Act (CJA) attorneys, the D.C. Superior Court strongly encourages PDS to take on all of the CJA cases. PDS declines in defense of its program, which requires a controlled caseload to ensure the highest quality legal representation. PDS does, however, work closely with the court to coordinate a large-scale draft of private attorneys to take the cases.
  • PDS establishes its Correctional Services Program to provide legal services to D.C. prisoners, addressing criminal legal problems, institutional administrative matters, and civil matters by referral to appropriate organizations. (These services are 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 of the U.S. Department of Justice.
  • PDS’s exceptional advocacy and proven success lead to its designation as an exemplary project and model for other jurisdictions by the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration of the U.S. Department of Justice. This honor recognizes the value of PDS’s individualized and continuous client representation, comprehensive training, non-legal resources, effective management and administrative systems, and its involvement with the private and court-appointed defense system and law reform.



  • J. Patrick Hickey is named director of PDS.



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



  • PDS implements its Volunteer and Intern Program (now called the Criminal Law Internship 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 Black director of PDS.



  • Following the unsuccessful efforts of PDS and the Superior Court Trial Lawyers Association to increase the miserly hourly rates for CJA attorneys, most CJA attorneys go on strike. PDS steps in to handle much of the heavy CJA caseload while also persuading 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. 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 called New Beginnings), or at the Receiving Home for Children in Northeast Washington (now called Youth Services Center).



  • A Washington Post article cites the Volunteer and Intern Program (now called the Criminal Law 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, successfully challenging the District of Columbia’s failure to provide adequate care and rehabilitation services for detained and committed children.
  • Cheryl Long is named director of PDS, becoming the first Black woman to lead a public defender office. 



  • PDS creates its Prisoners' Rights Program (now called as the Prisoner & Reentry Legal Services Program) to provide information to individuals who have been convicted of D.C. Code offenses and are being held in correctional facilities, and to assist them and monitor their conditions of incarceration.
  • PDS training director Kim Taylor-Thompson is appointed director of PDS.


  • PDS establishes a new position—special litigation counsel (the scope of this position evolved into the Special Litigation Division and the Special Counsel to the Director for Legislative Affairs)—to monitor and offer comments on proposed legislation at the local and federal level; court rules; sentencing guidelines; and Department of Justice policies. The special litigation counsel also handles the Jerry M. class action suit; other civil, habeas, and related matters; and unconventional appeals.
  • PDS successfully lobbies for pay parity for its lawyers to ensure that its salary schedule is on par with that of the U.S. 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.


  • Deputy director Angela Jordan Davis is appointed director of PDS.



  • Appellate Division deputy chief Jo-Ann Wallace is appointed director of PDS.



  • PDS is established as a federally funded, independent legal organization governed by an 11-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.
  • 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 its Community Defender Office (now called 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 youth and adults who are in the post-adjudication stage of a case in the District of Columbia’s juvenile or criminal legal system.



  • Cynthia E. Jones, former staff attorney, returns to PDS as its director.



  • PDS files litigation (Long v. Gaines) that leads to the adoption in 2002 by the U.S. Parole Commission of deadlines for resolving parole and supervised release revocation cases. Prior to the resolution of this case, the time that individuals accused of violating their parole or supervised release conditions spent in pre-adjudication detention could be longer than 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. To address this need, PDS establishes the PDS Forensic Practice Group, a dedicated group of PDS lawyers who learn about and train others on matters of forensic science in the courtroom.
  • PDS expands its Duty Day Program, in which staff from the legal and legal support services divisions apply their expertise to respond to telephone and walk-in requests for assistance from the public and from criminal legal system practitioners regarding legal matters. These matters may include record sealing, social services, parole, and mental health issues.
  • 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 its Civil Legal Services Unit (now called the Civil Legal Services Division) to assist children and adults with legal issues related to special education, public benefits, and immigration. CLS provides wraparound services to address issues faced by children in the delinquency system that can hinder their successful reintegration into the community. These services include special education advocacy for public school students who cannot be adequately educated in a traditional classroom setting because of intellectual, learning, or physical disabilities, and who have other rehabilitative needs. CLS also addresses the needs of adult clients by providing representation in civil matters arising from their criminal charges. In addition, CLS offers expert consultation for attorneys whose clients in the criminal legal system also face immigration consequences.



  • PDS launches a customized, comprehensive, database-driven website that provides information about the organization; about training, internships, law clerkships, and employment opportunities; and about legal issues relevant to the local criminal legal system.
  • PDS collaborates with the D.C. Superior Court to establish a continuing legal education program for CJA lawyers.
  • PDS hires its first-ever legal recruiter to oversee the recruiting and hiring of qualified attorneys. This includes working with law schools to set up the fall interviewing process, coordinating on-campus and callback interviews, and managing the summer law clerk program.
  • General counsel Ronald S. Sullivan Jr. is appointed director of PDS.


  • The Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia awards its Servant of Justice Award to PDS for its dedication to and remarkable achievement in ensuring that everyone in the District of Columbia has equal and meaningful access to justice.
  • The Criminal Law Internship Program is ranked as one of the most hands-on internship programs in the nation in the 9th edition of the Princeton Review’s The Best 109 Internships. The program is called "a criminal law internship at its in-your-face best." (The ninth edition was the final edition of this publication.)
  • In celebration of the 40th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, PDS and the PDS Alumni Association sponsor an essay competition for public 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 D.C. Superior Court create practice standards for panel lawyers representing children charged with acts of delinquency, and they offer a training certification series for attorneys interested in admission to the juvenile CJA court-appointed panel.
  • Deputy director Avis E. Buchanan is appointed director of PDS.



  • 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 other 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 into 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 of the report include PDS’s political and judicial independence and its workload limitations.



  • PDS establishes a pilot mental health legal specialist position in its Trial Division to address the serious mental health issues in some 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 through promotion of the highest standards for the representation of clients.
  • At a forum at the Harvard School of Public Health, "Defending Childhood and Youth: An Approach to Ending the Cycle of Violence," U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. acknowledges that PDS is “the best public defender’s office in the country.”
  • PDS’s litigation before the U.S. Supreme Court and subsequently before the D.C. Court of Appeals leads to the end of a 10-year practice by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Now, instead of serving as private prosecutors pursuing criminal contempt charges in the name of and on behalf of private citizens, the U.S. Attorney’s Office will pursue such charges 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 has been civilly forfeited. These protections restrict the Metropolitan Police Department’s ability to arbitrarily seize and indefinitely hold property, including in cases where the individual has not been charged or has had their case dismissed.



  • PDS proves the innocence of three men, in three different cases, who had served more than 70 years combined in prison for offenses they did not commit. This ultimately triggers a broad, ongoing federal review of convictions based on hair and fiber evidence dating back decades before 2000 (the year when prosecutions began to rely on DNA evidence). Only one other exoneration has been successfully litigated in the District of Columbia—and that was 23 years ago.



  • PDS creates a criminal law blog dedicated to following and dissecting criminal law decisions of the D.C. Court of Appeals. The blog includes concrete examples of how a particular decision can be used effectively at 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 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 its 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, from financially disadvantaged backgrounds, and 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 of Columbia’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 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 four exoneration cases) leads 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 1990s. In April, the Department of Justice and the FBI, following a review of 200 convictions, formally acknowledge 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, its case management system, available on staff members’ smartphones. 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 onboarding and offboarding 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 move toward a 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 on both 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 of Columbia, 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 served 20 years of incarceration for an offense committed prior to age 18 to petition the D.C. Superior Court for a lesser sentence. Each of these new IRAA cases requires a tremendous amount of effort, including 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 to assist the client in taking advantage of this resentencing 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 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 for experts and serves as their point of contact, attends hearings regarding mental health issues of the client, and serves as co-counsel in competency hearings and trials where an insanity defense is raised.



  • PDS and the American Civil Liberties Union of the District of Columbia sue the D.C. Department of Corrections for its flagrant disregard of basic public health measures to limit the spread and severity of a COVID-19 outbreak inside the D.C. Jail. The case seeks immediate relief for unconstitutional conditions for all 1,600-plus individuals housed at the jail and its adjacent custodial treatment facility.



  • The Washington Lawyers' Committee honors PDS with the Alfred McKenzie award. 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.
  • On the 58th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, PDS announces the publication of The D.C. Reentry Navigator, a 900-page, 16-chapter book that is a comprehensive compilation of expert knowledge and reentry resources for people arrested, charged, tried, or convicted under District of Columbia law. The resource is created for those who are working to regain their lives following arrest, conviction, or incarceration.
  • PDS and the ACLU-DC successfully file a lawsuit against the District of Columbia government to stop its Department of Corrections from incarcerating a trans woman in the men’s unit at the D.C. Jail.



  • The Council for Court Excellence selects PDS, the ACLU, and Covington to receive its 2022 Justice Potter Stewart Award to recognize their work on the 35-year class action lawsuit Jerry M. The case successfully challenged the District’s “care” of children in its decrepit and outdated secure juvenile detention facilities. The award goes to “individuals and organizations whose work on behalf of the administration of justice has made a significant contribution to the law, the legal system, the courts, or the administrative process in our nation's capital.” The award honors the long line of PDS staff who contributed to the pursuit and success of the case during its 35-year history. PDS attorney Craig Hickein worked on the case during the final stages of the settlement. A very special congratulations go to former PDS attorney Jen Lanoff, who represented the Jerry M. class longer than any other PDS employee, and who will accept the award on behalf of PDS.
  • Heather N. Pinckney, a former PDS staff attorney and a former chair of the PDS Board of Trustees, returns to PDS as its director.



  • PDS establishes an internship opportunity for its social media program. 
  • PDS WINS a Website of the Year Award in the category of Associations, Government & Public Sector by Progress Sitefinity for its recently redesigned site.  The site winners were selected in two phases. First, an internal Progress Sitefinity jury evaluated each nomination against six selection criteria – visual design, content, layout and navigation, complexity, innovation, and significance – and shortlisted the three best websites per category. After narrowing the field, voting was opened to the community at large. More than 2,000 votes were cast.
  • PDS coordinates its first-ever Second Chance Second Hand event, a partnership with community organizations to provide legal and social services and resources for communities East-of-the-River. 



  • On February 8, 2024, PDS headquarters relocates to 633 3rd Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001.