Spotlight On: Marla R. McCowan - February-March, 2015

Please tell us something about your background in criminal defense, your time at SADO and as Manager of the Criminal Defense Resource Center (CDRC).

(Marla, left, at the 2015 spring CDAM Conference ending one of her final training events for the CDRC).

After graduating from law school in 1997 I was hired as one of the pro se law clerks in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. Near the end of my one year clerkship, a friend of mine forwarded an advertisement for a position as an Assistant Defender at SADO. I had never practiced law before and did not know anything about SADO, other than knowing that some of the best habeas petitions I saw as a clerk were written by SADO lawyers. My supervisor suggested that I apply, so I did. I was accepted in June of 1998 after the first interview by way of a very fun conversation with (then) Director James Neuhard. Budget cuts in 1999 required me to take the status as a Special Assistant Defender, and I was grateful that my boss Norris Thomas let me stay involved in SADO cases as much as my time would allow.

In that first year I learned as much as possible from some of the best criminal defense attorneys in Michigan. Neil Fink let me work on cases with him, including second chairing trials, which was not only the greatest legal education anyone could dream of but it was also beyond inspiring. I also worked with Brian Legghio and I can’t say enough nice things about him. Brian taught me the most important principle that a criminal defense attorney needs to know: you can outwork a county prosecutor. He taught by example.

When I returned to SADO full time I never forgot the work ethic that was modeled for me, and it never occurred to me that cases should be treated differently whether the client was paying (or not). I was lucky enough to be surrounded by the smartest and hardest working criminal defense attorneys at SADO, and they were always generous with their time. While I learned from many, I owe much of what I learned as an Assistant Defender to Susan Meinberg. She has had so much patience with me over the years.

I used my experience from federal court to start contributing to the Defender Habeas Book in 2008. By 2011 I was interested in learning more about SADO’s Criminal Defense Resource Center, and Director Dawn Van Hoek hired me to be the Manager of that unit. I am extremely thankful to Dawn for the opportunity to lead this amazing department that she created years ago. Once again I found myself surrounded by an amazingly talented group of people every day: Bill Moy, Eric Buchanan and Heather Waara. They work tirelessly to make life easier for criminal defense attorneys around Michigan. They are the best. I’ve also gotten to work with many great attorneys outside of the office on a regular basis, and I give the highest praise to the Frank Murphy Research Group: Kelly McDoniel, Neil Leithauser, Bill Schooley and Mike Skinner. All of them made my job as CDRC Manager a really fantastic experience.

You are soon to embark on another important road in the area of indigent criminal defense. Please tell us about that.

Jonathan Sacks is the first Executive Director of the new Michigan Indigent Defense Commission. He hired me to be the Director of Training, Outreach and Support, effective March 30th. I have been fortunate enough at SADO and CDRC to have gained experience over the last few years in training criminal defense attorneys. I’ve done this by way of managing training grants awarded to SADO, working with the Criminal Defense Attorneys of Michigan, and learning specifically about training public defenders from Jon Rapping of Gideon’s Promise based in Atlanta, Georgia. I will be using my experience and skills as a public defender and trainer to help inform standards for indigent defense. We will also provide training, support and resources to attorneys taking appointed cases at the trial level around the state. I have been a public defender at the appellate level for more than 16 years. My new position is a natural extension of a good amount of the work I have been doing for a long time, and builds upon the experience I’ve gained at SADO and CDRC in public defense, training and support.

What is the best advice you can offer new attorneys?

The most important thing that I ever learned and that I tell new attorneys is: listen to your clients. Clients do not always use precise legal terminology but they always know when something was unfair, incorrect or wrong. Clients can also feel frustrated, anxious and overwhelmed when they meet with you while in custody and they often think of additional things to tell you after your meeting. If you are going to ask your client to write things down to give to you for your review, take time to read it and put yourself in their place. Norris used to say that there are two types of legal issues: “gut” issues and “legal recognition” issues. “Gut” issues are things that just seem wrong (bad lineup, no attorney at a hearing, prosecutor used to be client’s defense counsel, etc.). Legal recognition issues tend to be more technical in nature (evidentiary rules, scoring sentencing guidelines, etc.). Clients are a great source of information about “gut” issues. Really listen to their story and think about how you can help.


Though I am excited for my new opportunity with the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission, I am sad to leave SADO. I’ve had a wonderful 16 years here, and I am grateful for all that I’ve learned from my colleagues and clients. I plan to continue contributing to the Criminal Defense Newsletter and to stay active in this defense community that I so passionately cherish. Wish me luck!

by Neil Leithauser
Associate Editor