Crime & Courts
4:01 pm
Wed October 30, 2013

Tom Hillier, Who Defended Millennium Bomber, To Retire After 32 Years

Tom Hillier, chief federal public defender for Washington's Western District. He plans to retire in February.
Credit KUOW Photo/Isolde Raftery

Tom Hillier is a lanky man with a full head of silver hair and deep-set eyes that can appear vaguely haunted by what he’s seen during his 32 years as a federal public defender in Seattle.

Because Hillier, who plans to retire in February as the chief federal public defender for the state’s Western District, has seen a lot: He represented Ahmed Ressam, known as the millennium bomber, who was convicted of attempting to plant a bomb at LAX International Airport on New Year’s Eve, 1999.  

And he represented Stella Nickell, an Auburn, Wash., woman who was sentenced in 1988 to 90 years for spiking Excedrin capsules with cyanide.

“Most of our clients won’t win their cases, so we try and convince the court that there is a way to solve criminality without sending them away forever,” Hillier said. “The system of punishment is so hard. We work our heart and souls out trying to get a verdict that makes sense.”

Most of the clients who come through his office don’t make headlines, however.   

“In Washington we have the good fortune of having some interesting cases – cool murders, smuggling, environmental cases,” Hillier said. “The 800-pound gorilla is Microsoft and copyright. Nebraska is all bank robberies and drugs.”  

Hillier called the legalization of marijuana “the first positive step since [Pres. Ronald] Reagan declared the War on Drugs.”

“This has a potential effect of shrinking our prison population, and that is huge,” he said. But, he added, given federal resistance to marijuana legalization, “The people selling pot here are potentially low-hanging fruit, and they are putting themselves in peril.”

The Obama Administration has focused on human trafficking, so his office represents pimps – many of whom have recently been sentenced to decades in prison.

Hillier is a third generation Washingtonian whose grandfather was one of the first state senators in 1889; his father worked for the Gov. Dan Evans administration. He’s a self-proclaimed Dead Head who attended law school night classes at Gonzaga University “to keep out of Vietnam, not to change the world.”

But like father (and grandfather), like son, and Hillier ultimately pursued a life in public service. Which might be why the less hurried life of retirement looms ominously – even though he has undergone two hip surgeries in the last year and a half.

Having his office’s budget slashed by 10 percent from federal budget cuts made retiring an easier decision.  

“We’ll travel some and figure it out,” Hillier said. “We are now collecting ourselves and cleaning up the house to have some fun, I guess.”

Produced for the Web by Isolde Raftery.

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