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New assistant law director happy on 'this side of fence'

Norwalk Reflector Staff • Oct 29, 2015 at 12:45 PM

Douglas Clifford's former co-workers at the Huron County Public Defender's office miss him now that he is the Norwalk assistant law director. However, they are confident of the job he will do as a prosecutor.

Clifford, who originally applied to be law director, said he is happy that Stuart O'Hara, the former assistant, was appointed because he was the best candidate. He noted that being O'Hara's assistant might actually be a better fit because of his experience and he still has many things to learn.

O'Hara, in a mocking evil laugh, joked that Clifford came from "the dark side" as a defense attorney.

"I'm having a lot a fun," a smiling Clifford said about his new job. "It still has that new car smell."

Clifford was hired at the public defender's office in late October 2001 and resigned May 16 to take his new appointment the next day. He primarily defended juvenile suspects, but also had a private practice.

Public Defender George Ford described Clifford as bright, hard working and astute.

"He's good with figuring out the situation he's in. I think that will serve him (well) in any situation," he said. "He'll be missed and I wish him well."

Mary Jackson, an administrative assistant at the public defender's office, didn't work with Clifford "nearly long enough." She noted that the 35-year-old attorney "always remembered administration day" and handled cases, no matter how difficult they were.

Jackson remembered Clifford being somewhat nervous, but excited, before Norwalk Mayor Sue Lesch announced her choice for assistant law director. "He was always looking at bettering himself," she added.

Administrative assistant Mary Gilkerson described Clifford as a "community activist" by being on the law library committee and the committee to improve Cline Street as well as participating in Norwalk High School mock trials.

"Yes, we do miss him. He can come back anytime," Gilkerson said.

Clifford applied to be the law director because he thought he could do "a great service to the community by being involved on the prosecution end of things."

"I have a strong sense of civics and giving back to the community," he said.

Differences in defense, prosecution work

Clifford has always had a high regard for the Norwalk Police Department and Huron County Sheriff's Office and enjoyed talking to the officers outside of court. He thought being a prosecutor would be a good personal fit.

He has enjoyed learning to be a prosecutor and discerning "the right thing for the community" by determining the correct charge to file. Clifford was quick to add he's thankful for O'Hara and his 25 years of experience to advise him.

The new assistant law director said it seems like he plays "Monday morning quarterback" by studying what officers decide to do while making "snap decisions." Clifford said he carefully reads each report and often takes the time to contact officers to get more information on the circumstances of the incident or the defendant.

"When we charge (a) case, we have to believe this case will stick if we go to trial, or at least have a chance to stick," he said. "A lot of time there are multiple charges possible (in) a certain situation."

Ford, Clifford's former boss, said he believes there are a lot of similarities in being a defense attorney and prosecutor, including interviewing witnesses and eliciting evidence.

The public defender knows quite a bit about going from one side of criminal cases to the other.

Ford was the Shelby County assistant prosecutor in 1977 before starting criminal defense work two years later. In 1980, he was a Huron County assistant prosecutor before making the transition to private practice in 1982.

"I got the public defender job in 1992, so I've made the transition at least three times," Ford said.

Huron County Common Pleas Judge Jim Conway said Clifford's defense work is a benefit. He explained that it allows him to know the rights of defendants, the obligations of the court and state and make sure due process is followed.

"He will get off to a running start, at least from a prosecution standpoint," Conway said. "He's quite familiar with municipal court and the proceedings down there."

Conway, the law director most recently from January 2004 through May 11, worked opposite Clifford at least weekly in Norwalk Municipal Court. He said Clifford often substituted for Huron County Assistant Public Defender David Longo when he was unavailable.

The judge said Clifford treated his juvenile cases with as much care as when he represented adult defendants.

"Both courts are equally important and equally challenging," Conway added.

Clifford said there is more patience and forgiveness in the juvenile court system because the defendants are in the midst of emotional and mental development.

"By the time you're 18 or 19, you have your ethics instilled," he added.

"I definitely appreciate this side of the fence now that I'm on this side. If everybody does their job to the best of their abilities, the system works," Clifford said.

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