Minneapolis criminal defense lawyer Kassius Benson was chosen Tuesday to lead the Hennepin County Public Defender's office, succeeding Mary Moriarty whose contract was not renewed by the state board.

Benson, 49, started out as a law clerk in the county office after he graduated from the University of Minnesota Law School in 1996. He worked as a public defender both here and in Washington, D.C., before launching his own Minneapolis-based firm 17 years ago.

Benson, one of three attorneys interviewed Tuesday by the state Board of Public Defense, said that returning to the office will be "like coming home." He talked about his "deep connection" to the lawyers who work there and in the court system across Minnesota; Benson has taught extensively throughout the state on behalf of the state board.

Describing what set him apart from the other two finalists, Benson said he has run his own firm, trained and recruited lawyers and dealt with management issues as "the ultimate authority."

The other two finalists, Lindsay Siolka and Shawn Webb, are supervising attorneys in the Hennepin County office public defender's office.

Benson will succeed Moriarty, who has held the job since 2014 but has been publicly on the outs with the board and the state's Chief Public Defender Bill Ward for most of the past year. The state board voted 4-2 in September against renewing Moriarty's contract for another four years after her term runs out this month.

Benson mentioned the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody as one of his reasons for wanting the job. He named diversifying the office's staff as the main goal of his term, saying it has only nine attorneys of color now — four of whom were there when he started as a clerk.

Recruitment as well as recognition and training will be key to hiring a more diverse staff, he said. The office has about 118 employees, most of them attorneys.

Though the vote for Benson was unanimous, some board members expressed support for Siolka and Webb. Hennepin County District Judge Carolina Lamas said Siolka blew the others "out of the water" with the strength of her interview, and Elizer Darris, an organizer with the ACLU, said Webb and Benson were the strongest candidates.

Former state Supreme Court Justice Helen Meyer said Benson's experience impressed her, and Hennepin County Chief District Judge Toddrick Barnette said Benson's credibility and collaborative approach to the work won him over.

Barnette, who started as a clerk in the public defender's office, is married to an attorney in the office.

Benson will take charge of the busy office after a difficult year that began in December 2019, when Moriarty was abruptly placed on paid leave pending an investigation that led to her discipline for social media activity, and following concerns about her ability to collaborate with other public officials.

In addition to the instability and uncertainty with Moriarty's position, Hennepin County's public defense attorneys have been working under shifting conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic. Public health restrictions have made it challenging for them to protect themselves and their clients while ensuring timely court sessions.

Moriarty reapplied for her job but wasn't chosen as a finalist. She hasn't indicated whether she will stay on in the office, but she remains a county employee and could return to trial work.

Benson was born in Columbus, Ohio, and graduated from high school in Minot, N.D. He received his undergraduate degree from Iowa State University in Ames.

The chief public defender job in Hennepin County has an annual salary range of $140,317 to $161,398. Benson's starting date and salary have yet to be determined.

Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747

Twitter: @rochelleolson