For 34 years, the loyal opposition

Updated Oct 4, 2005

The most surprising thing about Robert Jagger may be the simple fact that people do not know the name Robert Jagger.

Jagger is a graying, softspoken, 68-year-old lawyer who has spent 34 years as the Pinellas-Pasco public defender _ which makes him one of the longest-serving elected officials in the Tampa Bay area.

He also may be the longest-serving public defender in the nation.

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1963 essentially created the job of public defender nationally. By then, Jagger had been in office two years. Officials at the National Legal Aid and Defenders Association say it is "probably safe to say" that Jagger has been around longer than any other public defender.


Jagger's low-key, camera-shy style obscures the fact that he occupies what may be the most radical position government has to offer.

He runs the office that represents poor people accused of crimes. He is a government lawyer whose job involves beating other government lawyers, namely those in the State Attorney's Office.

His office has represented a bizarre cavalcade of clients: a man nicknamed the "Voodoo killer," a "bludgeon slayer" from Pasco County and, of course, assorted kidnappers, rapists, drug dealers and murderers.

But during most of the past 34 years, Jagger's name has remained a footnote in local politics. He is not a household name. He has run unopposed seven times.

That may change. Robert Dillinger, a longtime defense attorney and former assistant of Jagger's, said he intends to run for the office next year.

Jagger said he has not decided whether to run again. It would be only his second contested election.

For the first time since 1968, the veteran public defender may have to go to the voters to defend himself.

He was raised in Michigan, did a stint in the Air Force and moved to St. Petersburg in 1954 to be near his parents and attend Stetson Law School. He passed the Florida Bar in 1958.

As Jagger tells it, he never planned to become a lawyer but thought a law degree would help him in the business world. When he did decide to practice law, he vowed to avoid the one area that interested him least: criminal law.


Jagger changed his mind again because he wanted trial experience. He became a partner with a St. Petersburg lawyer named Clair A. Davis. Davis had a part-time job on the side: state attorney.

In 1961, he accepted the new, county-funded position of public defender. In those days, representation of poor people was haphazard, at best. The criminal court judge at the time, Judge John U. Bird, was known for grabbing loitering lawyers in the courthouse and insisting that they defend clients for free. Their grumbling helped lead the County Commission to create the public defender position.

"I said, "Well, I'll do it for two or three years. It'll be good experience,' " Jagger recalled in a recent interview, 3{ decades later.

In his first case before Bird, Jagger was called on to defend a man accused of stealing a television set in broad daylight. His argument was simple: No one would be stupid enough to lug a stolen television around in broad daylight.

The judge bought it. The defendant walked. Today, Jagger chuckles at the memory. Bird just wanted to let a young public defender win his first case, he said.

In one memorable exchange in 1962, State Attorney Davis, Jagger's former law partner, complained that in one case an unpaid assistant to Jagger "was probably pleading the man innocent to get experience in trying cases." Apparently, the legal system wasn't used to a whole lot of innocent pleas from down-and-out defendants.


That unpaid assistant, incidentally, was Allen Allweiss, who went on to become a veteran prosecutor and Home Shopping Network executive, one of many former Jagger assistants to go on to prominence.

In 1961, a Florida State Prison inmate named Clarence Earl Gideon hand-wrote a petition to the U.S. Supreme Court with a simple but powerful idea. He said he should not have been convicted because he had not been able to afford a lawyer.

The Florida Supreme Court turned down Gideon's appeal, but the nation's highest court sided with the prisoner at Raiford.

That landmark ruling shook the justice system. Florida, like other states, soon set up a system of public defenders. The governor in 1963 officially appointed Jagger as public defender _ even though Jagger was a dreaded Republican, back in the days when nearly all of Florida voted Democratic.

He remains the only public defender Pinellas or Pasco has ever had.

Courtroom observers in the mid-1970s were impressed at how expertly the Public Defender's Office handled a lurid kidnapping case.

The lead defense attorney was Jagger's chief assistant, Susan Schaeffer, now chief Pinellas-Pasco judge.

The case was so clear-cut that the lead prosecutor, Bernie McCabe _ now Pinellas-Pasco state attorney _ thought he had a "slam dunker." After Schaeffer got through with her spirited defense, McCabe was sweating bullets.


The Times even gave her a nice write-up about her defense.

Still, the defendant was executed.

As often as not, that's how the chips fall in the Public Defender's Office. Dramatic acquittals are few. More often, Jagger's lawyers fight fiercely just so their clients can live the rest of their lives in prison instead of being executed.

Going to court at all is rare. The office handled more than 35,000 cases last year _ compared with 470 during Jagger's first year _ and going to court in every case probably would require an extra thousand or so judges. Most cases are plea-bargained.

Few people interviewed for this story, including Jagger, could list many dramatic courtroom victories for Jagger's office. Instead, they cited other accomplishments of his administration:

A history of aggressively defending murder suspects who could face the death penalty, which Jagger opposes.

"I'm against it on the basis that when I'm representing someone that could lose their life, I feel inadequate," he said. He likes to say that a trial is composed of a thousand mistakes, and "if I make enough mistakes, this person could lose their life."

Attorneys in Jagger's office compile a "death penalty manual," a kind of how-to book for other Florida public defenders.

Helping to establish a public defender clinic at Stetson. You've heard of the barber college that lets students give low-priced haircuts to the public. This program is similar; students help represent people accused of crimes. The graduates include judges and prominent lawyers.


Working with McCabe to make the system work efficiently. Schaeffer said McCabe and Jagger have cooperated on such issues as when to schedule bond hearings. It may not sound like an enormous issue, but Schaeffer said that if the two refused to cooperate, the overburdened local justice system would be brought "to its knees."

Winning an award in 1968 from the National Legal Aid and Defenders Association, the main public defender association nationwide, naming him the best public defender in the nation.

Unlike some public defenders in the country, Jagger is not a crusader, not someone who likes to draw attention to himself. If you do so, "it sounds like you're trying to save the world, and it doesn't sound right."

Jagger says he's simply trying to protect individuals' rights.

He points out that the defendant could be anyone, a fact he well knows. Jagger was charged in 1977 with leaving the scene of an accident involving property damage. It involved a minor accident in which the other driver was drunk. With McCabe representing the state, Jagger appeared in court, pleaded guilty to a traffic violation and paid a $35.35 fine.

Jagger's former assistants recall him as an excellent teacher who drilled into them the value of exhaustive research and taught them to analyze cases from new perspectives.

"Back in those days, going to work with the public defender was like getting an . . . advanced degree in criminal law," said Circuit Judge Raymond Gross. "You were just eating and drinking and sleeping the stuff 12 hours a day."

Jagger also has earned a surprising amount of good will from prosecutors. "He runs the office with a good, level-headed, ethical approach," said Richard Mensh, chief assistant state attorney for Pasco County. "I just don't know of anybody that's done a better job of public defender than Bob Jagger."

"I think the world of Bob Jagger," McCabe said.

The only criticism that surfaced in recent interviews with other defense attorneys was that Jagger is rarely seen in a courtroom anymore. During the early days, he handled all the cases himself. But the last case in which he appeared in court as the lead attorney was more than 10 years ago, he said. He couldn't remember the year.

Jagger said he works extremely hard to administer his office, to work with the 65 or so lawyers under him. That's more important than appearing in court, he said.

Dillinger, the lawyer who says he plans to run for the office, said he was surprised to hear that Jagger may run again for the $101,000-a-year job.

The pair talked before the 1992 election, and Dillinger said Jagger told him he wanted to serve only one more term. Dillinger said last week that the conversation made him decide to push back his own plans to 1996.

Jagger acknowledged saying he wanted to serve another term but said he didn't make a commitment not to run after that.

He did not say when he would make his decision. The past several days have been painful for the Jagger family. His daughter-in-law Dee Ann Jagger, 29, wife of his son Ed, died Sept. 30 from an aneurysm. "That really caused me to rethink everything I was about to do," Robert Jagger said Friday. He said he spent several days reflecting, not just on his job, but "on life."

If he does decide to run again, don't expect a strident, fiery campaign.

"First and foremost, he's a lawyer," said Allweiss, his former assistant. "He isn't one of these off-the-wall, left-wing radicals. He's a conservative sort of guy, but he just believes in representing people."

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