Crime & Courts

Doug Strickler, Columbia lawyer and defender of the Constitution, dies at 68

Chief public defender Doug Strickler dies

Doug Strickler, Chief public defender for South Carolina's 5th Judicial Circuit, spent his career representing criminal defendants who don't have enough money to pay for a lawyer.
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Doug Strickler, Chief public defender for South Carolina's 5th Judicial Circuit, spent his career representing criminal defendants who don't have enough money to pay for a lawyer.

Columbia attorney Douglas "Doug" Strickler, who spent most of his legal career representing the poor, the downtrodden and the mostly guilty, died Friday. He was 68.

At the time of his death from cancer, Strickler was the chief public defender for South Carolina's 5th Judicial Circuit, which is made up of Richland and Kershaw counties. In that post, he supervised more than 50 lawyers and other staff.

Strickler, known for his 12-hour work days, wrote a widely used manual on S.C. criminal laws, S.C. Criminal Offenses and Penalties, and was regarded as an authority on numerous areas of crime and punishment. He served on the board of the S.C. Commission on Indigent Defense, the agency that oversees public defenders around the state.

"He knew what was important, and what wasn't important, just an excellent lawyer," said former S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Costa Pleicones, who worked for the Richland County public defender's office in the 1970s before coming a state judge and, later, a justice.

Public defenders like Strickler are attorneys who take the legal road less traveled, forgoing high-paying jobs in silk-stocking corporate law offices or government suites to represent criminal defendants who don't have enough money to pay for a lawyer. They are paid by county, state or federal governments. Their clients include accused killers, drug dealers and robbers.

"Most lawyers who start out as public defenders move on after a few years to something that's easier and pays better," said David Bruck, a nationally known death penalty lawyer and opponent who worked in and with the Richland County public defender's office.

"Standing up for people in trouble, who had no money but needed help, was his calling, and he gave it his whole life," said Bruck, a law professor at Washington & Lee Law School who runs a defense death penalty clinic. "He was always open to new ideas. He recruited a staff of energetic committed young people, and he never stopped pushing for the resource that his clients deserved. It's people like Doug Strickler who keep our Constitution alive. He'll be missed."

Lawyers who knew Strickler said he was a soldier in what is informally called "Gideon's Army," a reference to Clarence Gideon, an impoverished Florida prisoner won a landmark 1963 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Gideon v. Wainwright. In that case, the high court ruled that if a defendant charged with a crime cannot pay for a lawyer, the state must provide one free.

"He truly believed in the right of counsel and that everybody, regardless of ability to pay, regardless of guilt or innocence, is deserving of representation, and the best representation possible. That was his life," said longtime friend and fellow attorney Sue Berkowitz.

Because of that 1963 Supreme Court decision, public defenders' offices were established around the nation to ensure every defendant gets a lawyer. Supporters credit the court ruling with helping keep innocent people out of jail and ensuring trials are more error-free, cutting down on expensive appeals.

"Every time a person accused of a crime goes on trial, the Bill of Rights goes on trial, too, and Doug knew that," said longtime defense attorney John Nichols, who now directs the S.C. Supreme Court's Office of Disciplinary Counsel.

That outlook was what enabled Strickler to represent people like Hank Hawes, who brutally murdered beloved University of South Carolina professor Jennifer Wilson. A Richland County jury convicted Hawes in 2014 after an eight-day trial. He is serving a life sentence without parole in state prison.

Fielding Pringle, chief Richland County public defender, who tried the Hawes case with Strickler, described him as "a tireless advocate for the disenfranchised ... He was tough as nails and gentle as they come. His absence leaves a massive hole in the office."

A 1981 graduate of the University of South Carolina, Strickler started his career as a clerk in the Richland County public defender's office while still in law school. After he graduated, he became a full-time assistant defender, rising through the ranks — with a brief interruption for private practice — until in 2008 he became the 5th Circuit public defender, one of 16 such posts around the state.

Although for years, the state's 16 circuit defenders were paid usually far less than the chief prosecutors, or 16 elected circuit solicitors, a state law passed about 10 years ago mandates that circuit defenders receive the same pay as solicitors - $141,300. However, assistant public defenders are normally paid less than assistant prosecutors.

Strickler's influence will continue to be felt through his book on criminal laws, which has grown over the years from a thin volume to a thick tome full of information about state criminal laws, sentences, probation and other matters.

"It's my bible," said veteran Columbia defense attorney Jack Swerling. "I go to it a couple of times every week."