GREENSBORO — When Fred Lind announced his retirement as Guilford County’s public defender, local attorneys knew it was “the end of an era.”
“Fred is such an institution here,” said John Bryson, president of the 24H Judicial District Bar.
Before his retirement became official on Sunday, the 72-year-old Lind spent more than 45 years in public service, all of it at the Guilford County Public Defender’s Office. He served for decades as the No. 2 person in the office, and succeeded longtime Public Defender Wally Harrelson in 2011 after Harrelson's death.
Lind was only the second person to hold the top post leading the county's public defenders, state-paid attorneys who defend people who cannot afford representation. He is succeeded by John Nieman, an assistant public defender since 2004 who was nominated by the local bars to take over for Lind.
Not around the courthouse much? Maybe Lind's name might be familiar in the context of a different court. That 1968 basketball game where the second-string Duke player came off the bench, scored 16 points and propelled the Devils to an 87-86 win over Carolina?
That was Lind.
It was a magical moment for the team, but Lind downplays his role.
"He's pretty modest," said Joe Craig, senior resident Superior Court judge. "He has a knack for putting you at ease and secondly, by leading by an example in terms of ethics and integrity and straightforwardness."
So how did Lind get from the basketball court to the courtroom?
After graduating, he enrolled in DePaul Law School in Illinois.
"I wasn't sure what I wanted to do," Lind said. "Occasionally, I would go to the federal court within a block or two from DePaul and watch criminal cases."
During his last year in law school he interned at a public defender's office. He liked the work and, after moving back to North Carolina, looked for an opening in the state's nascent public defender system.
At the time there were three offices: one in Guilford, Fayetteville and Asheville.
Guilford didn't have any openings so Lind studied for the bar exam while working at a basketball camp run by Tar Heels Coach Dean Smith in Chapel Hill. One day, one of the coaches told Lind his mother had called to say Guilford County's public defender had a job for him.
Lind worked closely with Harrelson for so long, you can't talk about one man without the other being brought up.
Harrelson became North Carolina's first public defender when he opened Guilford's office in 1970.
In August 1974, Lind joined Harrelson in Guilford County, commuting from his Greensboro home to work in the High Point office.
Former District Attorney Jim Kimel, who also had to make the drive from Greensboro to High Point as an assistant district attorney, often carpooled with Lind.
Even then, Kimel said, Lind's strong ethics were evident.
"I can remember, Fred would worry so much about, not appearance, but he would not want to get out of the car with us," Kimel said. "We would drop him off in front and I would park in the back."
The two often found themselves facing off in court.
"He was a good person to try cases against because he always knew what he was doing," Kimel said.
He said Lind also did what his client wanted.
"He didn't try to talk them into pleading guilty or anything else," Kimel said. "When it came down to it he would say, 'It's his case, this is what he wants to do.'
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The 6-foot-8 Lind has been a presence at the courthouse. He liked to pop in to courtrooms and watch court cases unfold.
Former Chief Assistant District Attorney Howard Neumann said Lind also would make the rounds every day to greet the prosecutors in their offices.
He has become the unofficial courthouse photographer, attending every bar and courthouse event. Mostly, he snaps pictures to document events for himself. But he shares his work too.
Neumann described Lind and the other public defenders "as much of the home team as the prosecutors."
"He, like everybody else in the PD's office here, dispels the courthouse talk that you would be much better off with a private lawyer than a public defender," Neumann said. "Nothing could be further from the truth in our courthouse."
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Lind is known for being tireless and fearless. Not much bothers him.
Take that time when a judge criticized him for being late to a hearing. As the story goes, Lind walked over to a clock in the courtroom and turned the hands back so it read that he was on time. He then proceeded with his case.
When colleagues aren't laughing at the folklore surrounding Lind, they’re envying his work ethic.
"It was my goal and still is my goal to try and equal or surpass his number of jury trials," said Wayne Baucino, an assistant public defender.
Baucino is 75 jury trials short of Lind's record 325, although Lind stepped back from trying cases once he become the county's public defender.
Lind says out of all those cases, no one particular trial stands out, but he told Baucino he's probably best known for getting not guilty verdicts in six separate cases where the defendant had confessed.
Colleagues also envy that memory of Lind's.
Attorneys often use online research tool Westlaw to look up court cases. In Guilford County, they just ask Lind, whose seemingly limitless case recall is jokingly referred to as "Fredlaw."
"He had the entire law library in his brain," said Bryson, who learned the hard way to just ask Lind.
For one case in 1986, when lawyers still had to go to libraries to look up case law, Bryson spent hours looking through digests to find case law that would help one of his clients. When he finally found it, he returned to the public defender's office where Lind asked what he'd been doing.
Bryson told him about the trouble he was having on his case.
Lind rattled off the exact Court of Appeals case Bryson needed and where he could find it. It was the same one that took Bryson hours to find.
"I felt like I could just shoot myself," Bryson said. "It just amazed me how smart this guy was and how much information was in his head."
Former District Attorney Doug Henderson said Lind's knowledge was helpful to everyone in the courthouse.
"He would read every bloody opinion that came out of the N.C. Court of Appeals and Supreme Court," he said. "He would share more case law and helpful hints to everyone who has tried a case in criminal court in the past 40 years."
Henderson said Lind would slip notes to attorneys with helpful information and tips.
"More often than not," Henderson said, "he saved the day for you."