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April 18, 2005

Oregon Innocence Network sponsors Oregon’s first public defender

Forty Years Later:
Civil Rights Lawyer Speaks of
Oregon’s Early Exonerations
Lare Aschenbrenner’s zeal for justice has always placed him in the center of the action. In the course of a 45-year career, the 1957 University of Oregon law school graduate traveled from Grants Pass to the deep South and the far North – all in the pursuit of equal rights for all.

On  April 25 he spoke about his cases, his career as a civil rights lawyer, and his role in exonerating a young Oregon black man who had been convicted of murder, a story which recalls the case of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter.

The talk was sponsored by the Oregon Innocence Network, a group made up of law and journalism students who are lobbying the University of Oregon to support a clinic dedicated to freeing innocent people behind bars in Oregon. The law school cosponsored the talk.

Lawrence A. Aschenbrenner was appointed Oregon’s first Public Defender in 1964, right after the US Supreme Court handed down several landmark decisions expanding the rights of accused criminals.

In 1965, a cursory review of the trial transcript in one of Oregon’s most infamous cases revealed racial prejudice to Aschenbrenner, and his office successfully won post-conviction review and a dismissal of a 30-year old murder conviction against a black man in Klamath Falls.

In 1932, Teddy Jordan, a 24-year-old employee of the Southern Pacific Railroad, had been convicted by an all-white jury of murdering a white train steward and sentenced to hang. After an outcry from the NAACP and other groups, his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment the day before his scheduled execution. Through Aschenbrenner’s work, Jordan was finally exonerated.

Aschenbrenner went on to represent black citizens of Mississippi during the late 1960s when the rage of the old white power structure was at its peak. In the 1970s, Aschenbrenner, co-founded Oregon’s first public interest law firm and worked on environmental issues. In the 1990s, he led a successful fight for recognition of 226 Alaska Native villages.

He retired in 2002, after serving as the director of the Alaska office of the Native American Rights Fund. Aschenbrenner was honored on April 15 with the Frohnmayer Award for Public Service, given by the UO School of Law Alumni Association.

-Eliza Schmidkunz

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