Deputy District Attorney Frayla Tarpinian during a hearing in April at the Capital Judicial Center in Augusta. Tarpinian is stepping down to become one of Maine’s first district defenders, serving poor people accused of crimes in Kennebec County. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file

AUGUSTA — Frayla Tarpinian, who has worked in the Kennebec and Somerset County District Attorney’s Office for more than a decade, is stepping down in November to take the job of district defender for Kennebec County.

“I have a front-row seat to some of the best criminal defense lawyering and some of the worst criminal defense lawyering that there is in the state,” Tarpinian, now the deputy district attorney, said Thursday. “And I have some organizational skills that would be hard to replicate that I can bring to an organization that’s going to build its first office.”

In Maine, the only state in nation without a public defender’s office, the court system has relied on appointing lawyers in private practice to represent people who cannot afford their own lawyers. Those lawyers work under the supervision of the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services.

Because of the relatively low fees for that work, fewer and fewer lawyers have been willing to accept such cases. And while the rate has recently increased, the problem has not been solved.

A shift is now underway to meet that need.

Earlier this year, state lawmakers endorsed a plan to allow the commission to create a rural defenders unit to take on court cases in rural areas where courts are particularly struggling to appoint private lawyers to represent poor people accused of crimes.


While lawyers are now taking on cases in Aroostook, Penobscot and Washington counties under the program, Tarpinian is the first district defender to be hired to lead an office of publicly funded criminal defense attorneys out of a fixed location.

“She’ll be in charge of the first brick-and-mortar public defender office here in Maine located in Augusta,” Jim Billings, executive director of the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, said. “That’s going to consist of five attorneys, two paralegals and an office manager.”

The office will be on State Street, across from the First Amendment Museum, and is expected to open when Tarpinian starts in early November, Billings said.

While the office will serve Kennebec County, it will not be able to take on the full load of cases the county’s courts generate at this time because it will not have enough attorneys, Billings said. The office may also take on cases in Somerset County, although the program does not strictly follow the boundaries established for the state’s prosecutorial districts.

Jim Billings, executive director of the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, at his office in Augusta on June 30. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file

Even so, Billings said the districts would roughly coincide with existing districts. The plan now is to eventually have an office in Aroostook County, a Bangor office that would also cover Dover and Piscataquis County and a Down East office that would cover Washington and Hancock counties.

A Midcoast office is anticipated, as is an office in western Maine in the Lewiston-Auburn area that would cover South Paris and Rumford courts. The program expects to establish a joint office for Cumberland and York counties.


“We have a real need right now to increase the capacity of our system to carry cases,” Billings said. “We don’t have enough attorneys to do this work.”

The only way to increase that capacity is to bring in new people — recent law school graduates; lawyers who live in Maine, but work in other areas; or people who now work as public defenders in other states.

“We’ve lost people who want to be employed public defenders, with the security of a job and the environment of a public defenders’ office, where they’re all working toward a common goal doing this work,” Billings said. “I think we have lost a lot of people to other states who want to do this work.”

If a public defender office system can be rolled out in Maine to take on a portion of the cases, Billings said he is optimistic about the long-term outlook.

“She’s taking on this incredibly difficult role,” Maeghan Maloney, district attorney for Kennebec and Somerset counties, said of Tarpinian. “When you’re the first person to do any job in the state, there’s a microscope that will be examining every move a person makes. Frayla knows that. She knows she is setting something up that will be around long after she and I are both gone.

“She is absolutely the right person to do this. She has spent half of her career in criminal defense and half her career in criminal prosecution. She understands the intricate details of the criminal justice system.”


As district defender, Tarpinian will report to Billings, who reports to his board. But, he said, Tarpinian will have a great deal of autonomy in the office setting policy and supervising the attorneys.

Tarpinian has been with the Kennebec and Somerset County District Attorney’s Office for more than a decade, first as an assistant district attorney, then, since 2018, as deputy district attorney, the second-highest post in the office.

Before that, she worked in general practice in Windham and Brunswick, first as an associate and then in solo practice, where she did work as a court-appointed attorney, including for the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services after it launched.

Tarpinian said she opted to leave defense work and join a prosecutor’s office because she wanted to work on a team and build her skills in criminal law. In making the transition to district defender, she said, she will be able to return to criminal defense law and work with a team.

Her last day with the district attorney’s office is set for Nov. 3, with her last day in the office expected to be Nov. 2. She is scheduled to begin with the state Nov. 6.

Maloney said she has appointed Francis Griffin as deputy district attorney. He has been serving as the first assistant district attorney.

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