He fought at Anzio and the Bulge, now — at age 99 — he fights for indigent criminal defendants

By DAVID OWENS | The Hartford Courant | Published: May 2, 2019

HARTFORD, Conn. (Tribune News Service) — Morton N. Katz stands out among the hundreds of people who pass each day through the doors of the criminal courthouse in Hartford, always nattily dressed in a suit or sport coat.

But that’s just part of the story with this extraordinary public defender. At 99 years old and on the cusp of his 100th birthday, Katz is still going strong.

As what is known as a “special public defender,” Katz is paid by the case by the state to represent indigent clients. Without doubt, Katz is the oldest public defender in Connecticut -- and perhaps the nation.

“I like what I’m doing and I think I’m doing a decent job,” said Katz, who lives in Avon and grew up in Hartford. “When I get up in the morning, I have that thought that somebody needs me, and that gets you to court. You feel good when you’re working.”

On May 15, Katz will celebrate his 100th birthday. And he’ll spend part of that day at the courthouse, representing a criminal defendant who could not afford to hire a lawyer. There’s really no other place he’d rather be.

A new direction at age 77

After a long legal career in Hartford, Katz obtained his first contract to work as a special public defender in Superior Court in Hartford. He was 77.

Special public defenders represent clients the staff of regular public defenders cannot represent because of a conflict. Special public defenders, now called assigned counsel, get a flat fee to represent clients.

Katz loves the law, and sticking up for people unable to help themselves. It’s a trait that has defined much of Katz’s adult life, first as a soldier fighting Nazis in Europe in World War II, then as a lawyer protecting victims of scams and abuse, standing by veterans in need of a hand, and since 1997 representing indigent criminal defendants.

On Wednesday, the state Judicial Branch honored Katz with a Lifetime of Public Service Award. Chief Justice Richard A. Robinson presented Katz with a certificate and a brand new straw boater.

“I can’t wear it until May 15,” Katz said with a grin.

Prosecutors, public defenders and judges filled the Supreme Court chamber on Wednesday to watch as Katz was recognized by the Supreme Court and the Connecticut Supreme Court Historical Society during the annual Law Day ceremony. Also there was Katz’s wife of 54 years, Shirley, and their daughters, Rachel Brunke and Naomi Cohen.

Katz lives to argue bail, work out deals with prosecutors, and otherwise keep his clients out of jail. On a recent morning he talked excitedly about a plea agreement he’d negotiated for a young man facing 14 drug charges. The deal was a one-year suspended jail sentence and a year of probation.

The young man wanted to think it over before accepting, Katz recalled But while he was thinking, Hartford police picked him up on a warrant charging him with murder. There went the deal.

Carl Ajello, the chief prosecutor in the court where Katz practices, said the public defenders are not giving Katz easy cases.

“He’s dealing with people who committed heinous crimes and efficiently representing them,” Ajello said, adding that Katz appears to have a special talent for putting the offenders he works with at ease.

William O’Connor, a public defender in Hartford Superior Court, called Katz a hero, both for his military service and for his work representing public defender clients.

Katz spends a lot of his time before Hartford Superior Court Judge Omar A. Williams, who worked as a public defender before he was elevated to the bench.

“He has had difficult cases and difficult clients,” Williams said. “These are felony cases, cases on the gun docket and always finds some angle to advocate for his client, even on the cases where the facts or the law are against him. He is creative. He always finds a persuasive argument and doesn’t give up on anybody."

Defense attorneys, especially public defenders, can face a lot of grief from clients who are unhappy with the direction a case is going or with the plea offer a prosecutor makes.

“He still is always a gentleman and he’s always respectful of his clients, and always just as much of a zealous advocate in those situations,” Williams said. “He never shies away from difficult cases or clients.”

“Indigent criminal defense is not legal work for the faint of heart and we could use more people like Attorney Katz,” said Christine Perra Rapillo, the state’s chief public defender. “His life experience allows him to relate to our clients, even when they are generations younger and from a different cultural background.”

Rapillo scoffed at the suggestion Katz was too old to be representing clients, and told him on Wednesday that “as long as you are willing and able to get to the courthouse," there will be clients for him to represent.

From Hartford to the Battle of the Bulge

Katz graduated from the UConn School of Law in 1951 and in June will celebrate the 68th anniversary of is admission to the Connecticut bar. He’s active at his alma mater, and also keeps himself busy providing free legal assistance to people in need.

“I do a lot of pro bono work,” Katz said. “It’s one of those things I got into. I’m a Depression kid and we lost our home in foreclosure.

Katz grew up in the North End of Hartford and graduated with honors from Weaver High School. A kind uncle paid for Katz’s tuition to the University of Connecticut, which was then known as the Connecticut State College. He graduated in 1939 with a degree in chemistry.

He tried to pay his uncle back, but the uncle refused. “No, you will not pay me back," Katz recalled his uncle telling him. “What you will do is you will help somebody else.”

Katz headed to graduate school at the Iowa State University, earning a masters in organic chemistry.

At UConn, reserve officers training corps was compulsory, Katz said, but his lab courses took priority over ROTC. He participated in the Citizens Military Training Camps program and received a commission as a second lieutenant in the Army1940.

“I wanted to serve,” Katz said. He went through infantry and parachute training at Fort Benning, Ga., and headed overseas in 1942.

Katz never parachuted into battle, but he fought in Italy, at Venafro and Anzio, and in Belgium at the Battle of the Bulge, where his outfit, the 509th Parachute Infantry was wiped out. Katz was transferred to the 505th Parachute Infantry of the 82nd Airborne Division, which fought in Germany and liberated the Wobbelin concentration camp near Ludwigslust, Germany.

Katz still talks to school children about his experiences in the war and participates in Veterans and Memorial Day activities. He’s also proud of the fact that he still fits in the Class A Army uniform he got in 1957.

The dining room of Katz’s Avon home serves as his office. He types motions on an old portable typewriter. He does not use a computer or a smart phone, but does have a flip phone.

Katz has no plan to retire.

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