Amid one of the most high-profile trials of her career, Dakota County public defender Lauri Traub could be found waiting tables on the weekend, a part-time job she’s held for more than a decade.
A 1999 Hamline Law School graduate who went back to school after her three children were born, Traub was one of two attorneys representing Brian G. Fitch Sr. last month when he was tried for the killing of Mendota Heights police officer Scott Patrick.
“I think people would like to believe he was a difficult client,” Traub said of Fitch. “He wasn’t for me. He was very respectful.”
Fitch, a meth dealer and father of four boys, was convicted last week and sentenced to life in prison.
Traub and her co-counsel, public defender Gordon Cohoes, were publicly thanked by Patrick’s half brother, Mike Brue, who said a fair trial required a vigorous defense.
For Traub it was another case in which she pushed back against the assumption that bullet analysis, fingerprints and DNA evidence are unimpeachable evidence.
When he was captured, Fitch was carrying the 9-millimeter handgun that police said was used to kill Patrick. During her cross-examination of the ballistics expert who made that match, Traub pressed until he agreed that the match is subjective.
“It’s not science,” she told the jury during her closing arguments, pushing a narrative that crime labs aren’t infallible.
Her familiarity in that area comes in part from her role in the 2012 shuttering of the St. Paul Police crime lab. She and fellow public defender Christine Funk stumbled across problems in the lab while looking at DNA evidence in drug cases. The lab has since been overhauled and reopened.
That success didn’t do much for her paycheck, though, and Traub has continued her part-time job at Jake’s, a hotel restaurant near the Mall of America.
“Everybody that I work with knows what I do,” she said. Sometimes, her customers don’t. A disgruntled diner once asked her if she knew what the word “unpalatable” means. She told him she had a law degree. And a working definition of the word.
Most of her customers are more fun, people on vacation who want to enjoy their mornings. During the Fitch trial, hockey players converged on the hotel from around the country for the annual pond-hockey tournament on Lake Nokomis.
“Those guys are great tippers,” Traub said.
That she’s had to continue working a part-time job isn’t news to William Ward, the state public defender and Traub’s boss. While pay varies, the starting salary statewide for public defenders is about $53,000. Pay freezes brought on by the 2008 recession were hard on the state public defender’s office, he said. The office is halfway through a six-year plan meant to rebuild.
The plan, if fully funded, would add more lawyers to the office and move it closer to the recommended caseload of 400 misdemeanor or 150 felony cases per public defender per year.
“We have 40 counties across the state who don’t have lawyers at the bail hearing stage,” Ward said. “That’s an embarrassment.”
Fitch allegedly confessed to the crime from his hospital bed shortly after he was captured, telling a police officer, “Just so you know, I hate cops and I’m guilty.” Traub said she doubted the statement because it didn’t sound like the way Fitch would talk. She said her doubts were confirmed when she found hospital records that showed Fitch was at a different location.
The confession never came up at trial, but Ramsey County Prosecutor Richard Dusterhoft said he still thinks the statement was solid. Regions hospital did not release detailed records that would have helped nail it down, he said. Still, the statement wasn’t strong enough to bring into trial.
“Guilty of what?” Dusterhoft asked. “It’s kind of an equivocal statement.”
Traub said Fitch maintains his innocence.
Numerous people wondered why she took the case, given the public animus directed at Fitch. His trial was moved to Stearns County due to pretrial publicity, and even there, many potential jurors had heard of the case.
Traub, whose son-in-law is a former police officer, said she feels everyone deserves a lawyer.
“When my children were born, I had such tremendous hopes and dreams for all of them, and so did these people’s mothers,” said Traub. “I guess I have that Mom thing going for me.”
A woman who conducted a public-opinion poll for the defense found that hatred toward Fitch was “off the charts,” Traub said, and some of that was directed at her as well.
A person called her a bitch in the bathroom outside the trial; she read online comments saying someone in Traub’s family should die. She said no one in law enforcement treated her that way.
A sheriff’s deputy at the hospital where Fitch was being treated wished Traub good luck with the case. With her birthday approaching during the trial, the deputies guarding Fitch sang happy birthday to Traub in a backroom.
And on the first day of the trial, Traub went to the holding area to meet Fitch and found a sheriff’s deputy tying her client’s tie.
“He tied Brian’s tie every day for three weeks,” said Traub. “I think that is the image that will stick in my head until the day I retire.”