Spokane native, Gonzaga graduate to head county Public Defender’s office: ‘It felt right’

Lifelong Spokane resident and Gonzaga Law School graduate Colin Charbonneau is the new director of the Spokane County Public Defender’s office.

Charbonneau will be the fifth director of the office since it was founded 51 years ago.

The previous director, Tom Krzyminski, retired late last year, leaving just one year left of his four-year appointment.

Charbonneau, 46, grew up in Spokane and graduated from St. George’s High School in 1994. He went on to attend Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania, where he studied business management with a concentration in economics.

He moved back to Spokane briefly before moving to Denver to be close to his brother. There, Charbonneau worked as an underwriter for an insurance company that handled workers compensation claims.

After a couple of years, he decided to move back to Spokane and attend Gonzaga Law School. While in school, he interned with John Cooney and Associates and experienced arguing in a courtroom for the first time.

One day in district court, Cooney was needed down the hall on another case, Charbonneau recalled. Charbonneau had about 20 minutes to read a motion and prepare to examine a witness.

Despite being “all kinds of nervous,” Charbonneau enjoyed it.

He also worked for his father-in-law, Joe Esposito, a longtime Spokane attorney. His father-in-law told him if he liked his experience in court, he should apply for jobs at the prosecutor and public defender’s officers.

Charbonneau applied to both and was quickly hired by the public defender’s office in 2006.

That first year was “an interesting change of pace,” with 300 cases dumped onto his desk, Charbonneau said.

“I learned a lot very quickly,” Charbonneau said.

Now, Charbonneau hopes to help strengthen the training and mentor programs in the office to help young attorneys grow.

He hopes to get new hires into trial sooner and provide more advanced training on trial preparation, direct examination and other issues, Charbonneau said. With about 70 trials under his belt, Charbonneau hopes to lead by example, offering practical advice from his own time in the courtroom, he said.

One of the things Charbonneau loves about being a defense attorney is the ability to be creative, he said. Prosecutors often have their case laid out for them in investigative documents.

“On our side of things, who knows what our defense is going to be,” Charbonneau said. “It can be all kinds of different things.”

Representing all of the defendants in the county who can’t afford an attorney keeps the office extremely busy, but Charbonneau said he feels caseloads right now are in a good place. The Blake decision, which found Washington’s simple drug possession law was unconstitutional, reduced caseloads, Charbonneau said.

“We’re in pretty decent shape,” Charbonneau said.

Still, the office remains busy, with COVID-19 delays causing serious cases to stack up on attorneys’ desks. Those cases don’t keep just attorneys busy, but a team of four to five staffers, including paralegals and investigators.

Charbonneau was hired with about a year left on the current four-year director term. He will have to reapply for the position in December, which he plans to do.

“It felt right,” Charbonneau said of taking the role now. “What better tryout?”

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