Published on: Thursday, August 5, 2021

Chief Federal Public Defender Miriam Conrad has dedicated her three-decade-long law career to defending the poor and sometimes those — like Marathon bomber Dzhokar Tsarnaev — who committed unspeakable crimes. She sees it as her duty to convey a picture of a defendant "as a whole person” and to help judges and juries see that picture, too (article available here). Tsarnaev was convicted and sentenced to death, but the sentence was overturned on appeal.

That dedication and compassion will be sorely missed, colleagues say, when she steps down next spring from her position as the chief federal public defender in Massachusetts after more than 15 years in the post.

Conrad, responsible for cases in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island, can be fierce when cross-examining a witness and tenacious with expert witnesses and law enforcement. As a boss, they say, she’s down in the trenches with her team, laughing at the absurd, always available for advice, and able to “deliver a kick in the posterior” when necessary.

“She’s a superb lawyer,” said retired federal judge Nancy Gertner. “She’s as good as it gets; she’s dogged and courageous and untiring, and cares unbelievably deeply about her clients.”

When she formally steps down March 31, Conrad expects to remain involved in the legal field, perhaps representing poor defendants part time or volunteering on policy initiative work.

Before Conrad had a law career, she worked as a journalist. She earned a journalism degree at Northwestern University and in the early 1980s worked as a crime reporter for the Miami Herald. She next worked at the Kansas City Times, now called the Kansas City Star.

Conrad graduated from Harvard Law School in 1987, clerked for a federal judge, and in 1992 joined the Federal Public Defender Office in Massachusetts, where she worked as an assistant public defender for 13 years. She is serving her fourth four-year term as chief defender. Conrad has testified several times before the sentencing commission, most recently about first-time offenders and alternatives to incarceration.

In 2016, Harvard Law School named Conrad as one of its International Women’s Day honorees, nominated by a student, faculty, or staff member for her work as a public defender and mentor and “in recognition of her commitment to zealously advocating for and providing top quality legal services to indigent clients.” Also honored that same year were Senator Elizabeth Warren, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and former US attorney general Loretta Lynch.