In 1963, the United States Supreme Court issued Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963), ensuring the right of the indigent accused to representation of counsel in criminal cases. During that same year, the Colorado General Assembly passed the Colorado Public Defender Act in response to the Supreme Court’s decision in Gideon. This Act authorized Colorado counties to either establish a public defender’s office or remain under the previous ad hoc system of appointing counsel for indigent citizens accused of criminal offenses.
Four county public defender offices were established under the Act. These offices were located in Denver, Brighton, Pueblo and Durango.
In 1970, the State Legislature passed the Administrative Re-Organization Act. The State began to oversee the court system, which assumed responsibility for the appointment and funding of counsel for indigent defendants. The Office of the State Public Defender was created in a bill carried by the late Senator Ralph Cole and became an independent state agency.
Initially, the Colorado Supreme Court appointed the Colorado State Public Defender. Rollie R. Rogers was the first State Public Defender. He served from October 1969 through February 1978, when John Purvis was appointed the interim State Public Defender and served until December 1979.
Greg Walta became the State Public Defender on January 1980 and served until July 1982. On August 1, 1982, David F. Vela was appointed State Public Defender and he fulfilled the responsibilities of the office for more than 17 years, until his retirement on December 31, 1999. The David F. Vela Award was established in his honor to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Colorado State Public Defender system in 1995.
David S. Kaplan became the State Public Defender and served from January 1, 2000 until October 31, 2006. Upon his resignation, Douglas K. Wilson was appointed the 6th State Public Defender, effective November 1, 2006