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The Voice of the Accused Is Silenced
By Elizabeth Stawicki
November 14, 2000
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Friends of Hennepin County Chief Public Defender William McGee are remembering him as a man who championed the underdog, was cool under fire, and never gave into vindictiveness. McGee died Monday of lung cancer.


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U.S. ATTORNEY TODD JONES remembers sitting at a forum a few weeks ago with William McGee to talk about such thorny issues as racial profiling. Both were attending a forum of national black law-enforcement executives that included Supreme Court Justice Alan Page and St Paul Police Chief Bill Finney. Jones says he was always impressed by McGee's depth of thought on the state of African Americans and he wasn't disappointed at what McGee added to the conversation.

"Billy's comments focused in on some of the history of how African American slaves' spirits were broken and the historical roots of how black men in particular were treated in a slave culture in the United States, as at the core of some of the issues we continue to see about how black men are treated in the criminal justice system," Jones recalled recently.

McGee was born in St Paul. He graduated from the University of Minnesota with a degree in Latin, and later graduated from the University of Minnesota Law School. Besides working as a prosecutor for five years, he spent most of his career as a public defender, providing legal help to low-income citizens. In 1997, he took over as Chief Hennepin County Public Defender under a thundercloud of turmoil.

McGee's predecessor, Bill Kennedy, had held the job for 25 years and police reports say he and some of his investigators tried to dig up dirt on McGee. Accusations flew, but the worst alleged McGee had been involved in a murder. An independent investigation found those charges baseless.

"Billy would always be a voice for letting bygones be bygones," says Atty. Keith Ellison, who considers McGee a mentor. Ellison first met McGee when McGee gave a talk to his law school class. From then on, Ellison grew to admire McGee particularly in how McGee handled the ugly spears of false allegations by turning what could've been a personal disaster into a triumph of grace.

"After Billy got the position of chief public defender, he was in a position to seek retribution," says Ellison. "He sought none. I remember even saying to him that I could see how a person might feel kind of hard-hearted toward them, and Billy counseled me. He said, 'You know, Keith, that would only poison me if I carried any of that."

In that position as chief public defender, friends say McGee always tried to help those who lived life on society's fringes: people of color, the poor and those with unpopular views. Michael Jordan, who's now a spokesman for the St Paul Police Department, said McGee talked publicly about uncomfortable issues like race.

"The clear bias that exists in the criminal justice system; the tremendous disparity of people of color, particularly African Americans ground up in that system, people don't want to talk about that, and William did," says Jordan.

Tannya Bransford, now a Hennepin County judge and a friend of McGee's, says she sensed that his motivation to champion the lowly came from parents who instilled in him a thirst for knowledge and justice.

"He'd been very involved in the NAACP, more recently we spoke on panels together in regards to racial profiling," recalls Bransford. "I think he feels like as an African American person, one who has been blessed with great intelligence and a knowledge of the law, that it's incumbent upon him to provide service and help others."

Last July, McGee told MPR that throughout career from public defender to prosecutor, his philosophy of justice has never changed only deepened.

"When individuals come through the system - and I've said it before - a bad act does not make a bad person. Do they have to lose their dignity or their humanity just because they happen to have been charged with a crime and go through the criminal justice system?"

Elizabeth Stawicki covers legal issues for Minnesota Public Radio. You can reach her via e-mail at