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Dave Roepke, Published December 27 2010

11 to Watch: Clay County public defender Joe Parise returns to Moorhead

Joe Parise was once used to taking a good deal of guff from a golfing buddy about his line of work.

That was before Parise, a public defense attorney in Minnesota, represented the friend’s son in an assault case. The son had come to the defense of his brother and was charged himself.

Parise took the case to trial and got his friend’s college-aged son acquitted. The guff stopped there.

“I got a very nice letter from his father who used to rib me,” Parise recalls.

That’s the essence of why Parise is drawn to public defending: It’s a civic need that’s often misunderstood until you or someone you know requires it.

“I just believe strongly that everybody who comes into our system deserves to have full and adequate representation,” he said.

Parise is bound to be a more familiar face in 2011 as he returns to his former job as manager of the public defender’s office in Clay County and defends a man accused of a double homicide in Moorhead.

A public defender for 30 years, Parise has spent the last five years on the state’s trial team – an experienced group of defense attorneys tapped to represent defendants facing the stiffest of prison sentences.

For portions of 2010, his spot on the trial team had him defending both Tracy Alan Zornes, the accused murderer in the Moorhead case, as well as Thomas Lee Fairbanks, who’s accused of fatally shooting Mahnomen County sheriff’s deputy Christopher Dewey.

The Fairbanks case will be taken on by two attorneys still on the trial team, but Parise will continue on in the case of Zornes, who is accused of killing Megan Londo and John Cadotte.

The Zornes case is expected to go to trial in 2011, but Parise will also have a diminished staff to handle in the Clay County public defender’s office.

When he left the job five years ago to take the trial-team position, there were four full-time and four part-time attorneys in the office. With caseloads on the rise, Clay County now has three full-time and two part-time public defenders, he said.

“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure it out,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of good people working under a lot of stress.”

Parise said the practical effect of fewer resources for public defenders is that some cases get less attention. The defendants already in jail rise to the top of the to-do list, and others must wait.

“We end up having to do triage like a MASH unit,” he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Roepke at (701) 241-5535