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Obituary for William J. Shaw: First St. Louis County public defender

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 25, 2010 - After William Joseph Shaw was named St. Louis County's first public defender, his first client was a previously convicted felon who was caught red-handed by Kirkwood police at night inside a locked Central Hardware store.

The young attorney made an unusual closing argument: His client was drunk at the time of the break-in.

''Although drunkenness is no defense in Missouri, I hoped for leniency, or to show a lack of intent," Mr. Shaw told the Post-Dispatch in 1989, 26 years after the trial. "He had told police he didn't know why he had broken into the hardware store.''

His client was acquitted, and, according to Mr. Shaw, never had another run-in with the law.

Mr. Shaw died Monday at St. Luke's Hospital in Chesterfield. He was 84. A funeral Mass was celebrated today at St. John Bosco Church.

Mr. Shaw helped draft the legislation to set up the public defender's office in Missouri. He was chosen from among more than 100 applicants to become the first St. Louis County public defender in December 1962. The appointment made him the first full-time lawyer for poor people facing criminal charges in St. Louis County. He served in that office, which at one time had as many as two dozen attorneys on staff, for more than 26 years.

The first person that Mr. Shaw hired as an assistant was Gene McNary, who went on to become St. Louis County supervisor and then head of the Immigration and Naturalization Service in President George H.W. Bush's administration. McNary is now head of the Missouri Gaming Commission.

Mr. Shaw had served as an assistant prosecutor in St. Louis from 1953 to 1957 and as the first assistant prosecuting attorney in St. Louis County from 1959 until his appointment as public defender in 1962.

Mr. Shaw was a 1950 graduate of St. Louis University School of Law and served in the U.S. Army from 1943-1946.

Mr. Shaw was preceded in death by his daughter Annie (George) Koors, and his stepson, Mike O'Toole, and his brother, Jack Shaw.

He is survived by his wife, Fawncy O'Toole Shaw; his sister, Elizabeth Fizgerald; his children, William Shaw, Jr., Priscilla Sciacia, Sarah (David) Bertelsen, and his stepchildren, Erin Jenner, Matt, Ed, Tom, Skip and Bart. He is also survived by his grandchildren, Jennifer (Jay) Frost, George Koors, Jr. and Nicholas Sciacia, and his great-children, Layla and Grayson Frost.

Services were at Thursday at St. John Bosco Church, 12934 Marine Ave., St. Louis. Interment in Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery.

The family would appreciate memorials to the Lindell Club, 4522 Lindell Blvd., St. Louis, Mo., 63108, or the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, 8790 Manchester Road, St. Louis MO 63144.