Philly’s Chief Public Defender Keir Bradford-Grey stepping down

Keir Bradford-Grey is stepping down as the Chief Public Defender at the Defender Association of Philadelphia. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Keir Bradford-Grey is stepping down as the Chief Public Defender at the Defender Association of Philadelphia. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Philadelphia’s Chief Public Defender Keir Bradford-Grey announced her plans to step down this week. Her resignation is effective April 15.

She announced her departure in a letter to the office’s Board of Directors on March 15.

Bradford-Grey, a Boston native, started her legal career at the Defender Association of Philadelphia in 1999, and has been in the top position since 2015. Prior to her leadership role in Philly, she was the chief public defender in Montgomery County.

She’s leaving the association to become a partner at Center City law firm Montgomery McCracken Walker & Rhoads LLP, where she’ll run an executive leadership practice group advising businesses, educational organizations and nonprofits.

In her role, Bradford-Grey advocated for fixing racial disparities in the criminal justice system, along with pushing to reduce the city’s jail population — both through a transformative justice lens.

More recently, she led the association as they worked to free incarcerated individuals in city jails under emergency motions due to the coronavirus, which spread rampantly in prisons and jails across the country. 

“Our system is now focusing on alternatives to our traditional model of justice to be less destructive — and more constructive — in our quest for public safety. While our work is not finished, I know the structure we’ve built will stand as a beacon for the future, allowing the Defender’s voice to lead for years to come,” Bradford-Grey wrote in her letter to the Board of Directors.

Among some of the accomplishments Bradford-Grey reflected on in the letter were the association’s creator of Participatory Defense Hubs in 2018, which aim to educate defendants and their family members about the complexities of the criminal justice system. There are currently seven active chapters across the city.

Bradford-Grey said involving the people’s voice in the proceedings as much as possible helped to create better defense outcomes, including avoiding wrongful convictions, and allowing for alternative options to the justice system that are based in community resources.

“The best thing I could have done is build more trust with service delivery in the community, and a mechanism for their voice to be greater,” Bradford-Grey said in an interview. “I hope that grows stronger in years to come.”

In 2019, Bradford-Grey had made her way back into a courtroom as a litigator for the first time in several years as the lead attorney for Michael White, who was charged with voluntary manslaughter after fatally stabbing real estate developer Sean Schellenger during a fight in Rittenhouse Square. He was acquitted on all charges except for tampering with evidence, for which he received two years probation.

After working on that case, Bradford-Grey said she’s been looking forward to getting back in the courtroom ever since, and plans to do so in her new position, focusing on white collar crime cases. She also hopes to bridge more private-public partnerships as a full-time litigator, and work on pro bono projects using the law firm’s resources.

“The Defender’s mission has always been to provide the best representation for our clients. Keir greatly enhanced that mission during her time as Chief Defender,” said Paul Hetznecker, president of the Defender Association’s Board of Directors. “Thanks to Keir, the Defender Association has been able to establish an unprecedented collaboration with the community, one of the keys to real criminal justice reform.”

First Assistant Defender Alan Tauber will serve as interim chief defender while the board conducts a national search for Bradford-Grey’s permanent replacement.

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