- Associated Press - Saturday, May 6, 2017

KALISPELL, Mont. (AP) - As one of Flathead County’s 14 public defenders, William Managhan - who says he never intended to become a lawyer in the first place - found a way to turn a personal cause into an education and ultimately a career.

The Montana native comes from a family established in the Flathead Valley in 1901 when his ancestors moved west in covered wagons. Traditionally loggers, Managhan said that as a boy he worked with his grandfather from 4 a.m. until nearly sundown seven days a week and couldn’t wait to be old enough to drop out of school and take up the family trade.

Then, during Managhan’s freshman year of high school, his older sister was murdered by her boyfriend.

“He emptied a pistol into her at close range, wrapped her in a rug and buried her in a shallow grave just outside of Missoula,” Managhan said. “She rotted there until an off-duty officer stumbled across the grave during hunting season.”

After his sister’s death, Managhan said school, which had never held much interest for a “future logger,” became a daily struggle. He poured himself into sports as a way to escape, but found he could no longer relate to his peers.

“While they were worried about who was popular or what shoes they wore, I didn’t care,” Managhan said. “I was just trying to make it through the day.”

Managhan said it was his grandfather who pushed him to finish school, but after graduating, he settled into a career as a welder with no interest in furthering his education.

At the age of 23, Managhan said things hit rock bottom. Following the dissolution of a rocky marriage, Managhan found himself struggling to support his infant twin sons as a single father. Managhan recalled working up to 16-hour days welding and then returning home to sleep on the floor of his parents’ home with a twin on each side.

However, Managhan said a passion for justice lit by his sister’s death had grown into a desire to do more.

At the age of 25, he made the decision to go to college to become a police officer. Now with a goal to aim for, Managhan said he rocketed through school, earning the highest marks in his class and capturing the attention of his professors.

“Fortunately or unfortunately, I turned out to be a lot smarter than I thought,” Managhan said.

In two years, Managhan earned a degree in sociology with an emphasis in criminology. His professors, however, had higher hopes for him than law enforcement and encouraged him to apply to law school.

Spurred on by the encouragement of his teachers, Managhan’s desire to go after bad guys transformed but never dissipated. Upon his acceptance and with the aid of scholarships, Managhan chartered a new course for himself. He would become a prosecutor.

Even graduating a full semester ahead of his classmates, Managhan accumulated a large amount student debt and soon found that a prosecutor’s paycheck would do little to help support his family and pay it off.

He was hired as a clerk for the Montana Supreme Court where he spent a year deciding where to go next.

That next step, according to Managhan, was opening his own private practice, where he began taking on civil cases. His firm was successful and quickly grew from a one-man show into a fully staffed office.

Despite the success of his practice, however, Managhan said that after a few years he began to question his motives.

“I didn’t become a lawyer to get rich,” Managhan said. “I became a lawyer because I wanted to help people.”

Still, when his now-colleague Nick Aemisegger approached him with an offer of work as a public defender, Managhan originally turned him down.

Managhan said he was concerned whether he could be a public defender. With the loss of his sister still weighing on his mind, he did not like the idea of switching sides.

“We’re all shaped by our life experiences so we all have biases,” Managhan said. “Fortunately, it wasn’t what I thought at all. It’s not my job to set criminals free. That’s not what I do. My job is to balance the scales of justice. My job is to make sure it’s fair and to hold the government accountable.”

His transition to public defender gave Managhan a new perspective on the justice system.

“I don’t represent criminals. I represent people who are charged with crimes,” Managhan said. “It’s not ‘get your client off at all costs.’ That’s not the job description. We’re all entitled to a fair representation.”

Managhan now works in a basement office in a building a couple blocks south of the Flathead District Court with 13 other lawyers. His case load, according to Managhan, has grown tremendously in the last few years.

Even with his enthusiasm for his career, Managhan said his first love is being a father. Over the years, his family has grown to include four stepchildren and his adopted daughter, making him a father to seven children.

Managhan said, as in other parts of his past, his lack of a biological father growing up has pushed him to be the best dad he can to his own children. He coaches their sports teams, attends their games and proudly displays everything from his daughter’s handmade Valentines to his son’s professionally illustrated calendars on every surface of his office.

From his beginnings sweating over a welding torch to today’s suit-and-tie court hearings, Managhan said he has tried to never forget who he is: “just a poor boy from Montana.”

“I’ve represented a lot of normal people who’ve had a bad day and done things a lot of people have done,” Managhan said. “They just got caught. That doesn’t make them bad people. It makes them human. Unfortunately, some of my clients might have done really questionable things, things that I don’t understand. But they’re always people, and they’re always deserving of compassion.”

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Information from: Daily Inter Lake, https://www.dailyinterlake.com


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