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Defender Is Taking Offensive He’s Gung-Ho About Kootenai County Office

If Ron Coulter could bottle his enthusiasm and sell it, he would be a rich man.

But for now, the Kootenai County Public Defender’s Office has cornered the market on his elixir.

Coulter, a lieutenant colonel fresh out of the Marine Corps, is the new chief public defender.

With the confidence 20 years in the military can instill, he has one simple objective for the office that defends poor people accused of crimes.

“I believe we can be the best place in Idaho to practice pure law,” he says. “We’re going to put the public defender’s office here on the map. We’re going to be out there on the cutting edge.”

His conviction is proving infectious.

After less than two weeks on the job, he has convinced county officials to let him drag the office out of the dinosaur age and into the future of technology.

On Wednesday, they approved nine new computers for his lawyers - who previously had none. The deputy defenders will have CD-ROMs, modems, access to the Internet and a computer service to keep them in touch with cases and courtrooms around the country.

“Ron exudes this confidence, this purpose, this vision and everyone catches it with him,” says Joel Ryan, chief deputy public defender.

“What I’m trying to do is bring us into the 20th century,” Coulter says. “I know where I’m going and I know how to get there.”

Coulter is succeeding Jonathan Hull, who retired after the death of his wife. He is also stepping into an office that has been overwhelmed by a mountainous caseload and high turnover.

During the 1993-94 fiscal year, the public defender’s office handled 3,415 cases - more than triple the 950 cases it handled in 1989.

Out of Coulter’s seven public defenders, only one was there 10 months ago.

“That just makes it a challenge,” he says with a Marine’s gusto. “I get a chance to build my people, I get a chance to build my team.”

Coulter won’t officially be retired from the Marines until Dec. 31. Until then, he’s on terminal leave.

At 44, he has spent almost half his life in the Marines. It hasn’t been easy adjusting to civilian life, he says.

Regular clothing is hard to get used to after 20 years in fatigue greens. His new camouflage - a neatly pressed pink pinstripe shirt and a burgundy foulard tie - looks dapper but does little to conceal the Marine beneath.

Military speak slips easily off his tongue. Instead of OK or yes, he often says roger. He has to fight the urge to call his superiors “sir” and finds it strange being called by his first name.

Coulter usually gets up at 4:30 a.m. He’s at the gym by 5:00 a.m. and in the office by 7:50 a.m.

His new office is spartan. A computer, printer and modem dominate his desk. They are his personal property. The idea of operating without them seemed preposterous.

“I have put my money where my mouth is,” he says, using a mouse to chase the icons displayed on his computer screen. The entire code of Idaho law is at his fingertips. So is the latest legal news. “As a leader I think you’ve got to believe in your vision.”

It’s that kind of drive - along with his business and legal grounding - that landed him the job.

Coulter was born and raised in San Francisco. In 1975 he joined the Marines after receiving his bachelor of arts degree in history from the University of California at Berkeley.

He spent 13 years as a logistics and supply officer. During that time he administered a $10 million annual operating budget and managed and accounted for $40 million worth of inventory.

In 1988 he earned his law degree from the University of San Diego by attending night classes while remaining a full-time officer.

Coulter spent time in Kuwait and was among the first Marines to land in Somalia. In both countries he was charged with advising the forces on legal matters and the law of land warfare - when they could and couldn’t go into combat, who they could and couldn’t shoot at.

As a military lawyer, he has been both a defender and the equivalent of a chief prosecutor.

Major Jay Canham, senior defense counsel at Camp Pendleton, knows what it’s like to battle Coulter in the courtroom.

“He was a very worthy opponent,” Canham says from the California base where the two were stationed together. “He would fight as tenaciously in the cases that really didn’t count for much as he would in the big cases. He never gave up.”

Coulter and Canham went head to head several times - once in a murder case. Coulter prosecuted a man accused of killing his 5-year-old stepdaughter. Canham defended.

“He had gotten together a case that was ironclad,” Major Canham says. “I knew there was no way I could beat it.”

The stepfather pleaded guilty. In exchange, Coulter limited the man’s sentence to 22 years.

“He wasn’t comfortable to go up against,” Canham says. “He was always charging.”

As a black man, Coulter is often asked why he would want to move to Idaho, given its reputation as a home for racist groups.

“The natural beauty of this place is unreal,” he says with a broad smile and adds, “I think people are more genuine here.”

Coulter had planned to come to Idaho ever since he earned his law degree in 1988. The cost and quality of living were enticing.

This July, he came to North Idaho for the Idaho State Bar convention - a chance to job hunt.

“I fell in love with Coeur d’Alene,” he says.

The county commissioners would later offer him the chief defender job the day after they interviewed him. It was a unanimous decision.

“I wanted to have a job where I could be an administrator and keep my nose in the courtroom,” Coulter said. “My dream came true by getting the job here.”

Coulter will be paid $41,000 a year. His wife of 20 years and their cat Mochi will move here next summer. His wife, Ossalina, is a case manager for Blue Cross.

Coulter envisions himself a cheerleader for his new team. He wants to boost morale so his employees will stay longer and build dedication to their work. “We defend the Constitution every single day,” he says.

But Coulter will lead his troops up a steep hill.

Accused criminals have complained that the public defenders don’t have time to meet with them or prepare for their cases, said Judge Gary Haman. The high turnover in the office has meant some defendants have had their cases passed like batons to three different lawyers.

Commissioners have tried to solve the problem. In the last budget, they made room for another defender and set aside $6,000 for technological improvements.

But Tom Taggart, county administrator, admits, “We had no idea what was needed, we just had an idea they were falling behind.”

Ryan, who has worked at the office for four years, said it has been one of the most technologically backward law offices he’s ever seen.

“What we’re doing is working with the legal equivalent of stone knives and bear skins,” he says. “We’re making fire with flint.”

Enter Ron Coulter - computer guru.

He was flabbergasted: The lawyers write their legal documents on notepads and then pass them to a secretary to type. She types them and gives them back to the attorneys who make corrections and send the documents back to her for more work. They have no e-mail to communicate quickly and efficiently.

In a carefully prepared presentation, Coulter convinced the county to spend more money - between $7,500 and $10,000 on computer equipment this year. The total project will cost about $35,000, to be paid over the next several years.

Ryan believes the system will allow him not only to do better work, but also to get twice as much done in the same amount of time.

“The law is changing and we need to change with it,” Coulter says, his hands slashing the air with enthusiasm. “We’re going to work smarter, we’re going to work more efficiently.”

It’s the first step toward fulfilling his vision.

“I honestly believe that in 18 months we’ll be at the top of the mark,” Coulter says. “In 24 months, I think we’ll be the showplace.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

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