Joseph Evans, '00: Fostering Trust Between the Legal System and the Community

Joseph Evans, '00, is the recipient of a 2016 UW Tacoma Distinguished Alumni Award for his work as a public defender, building the community's trust in the legal system.

Something about those grainy black and white images spoke to Joseph Evans. “As a kid I used to watch old Perry Mason reruns with my mom,” said Evans. “I always thought it was really cool that he was in a courtroom and asking people questions.”

Evans’ childhood fascination led to a career in law. He currently works for the Pierce County Office of Assigned Counsel. In his role as a public defender Evans provides assistance to those who can’t afford legal aid. “I very rarely have this masterful cross-examination where I’m able to expose the true culprit, but every now and then we have a pretty cool moment in court,” he said.

"I was a young kid with a gigantic afro and was probably eight to nine years younger than just about anyone else on campus."

The work isn’t flashy. There’s a lot of waiting and writing and research. None of this matters to Evans. “In public defense you’re always getting a new kind of case that you probably haven’t seen before,” he said. "You also get a lot of people who simply need some guidance and somebody to advocate on their behalf.”

Long before he was a lawyer, Evans was a kid growing up in Tacoma. He loved playing basketball and going to Sonics games. He lived with his mom and older brother in the Hilltop Neighborhood. “I wouldn’t say it [Hilltop] was as bad as legend has it but it wasn’t necessarily the best neighborhood,” said Evans.

At the age of 14 Evans enrolled at Tacoma Community College as part of the Running Start program. He graduated two years later, then started his bachelor’s degree at UW Tacoma when he was just 16 years old. “I was a young kid with a gigantic afro and was probably eight to nine years younger than just about anyone else on campus,” said Evans.

“I would come down to the library at UW Tacoma, put my ear phones in, pull out my laptop and read law.”

During his time at UW Tacoma Evans wrote for The Ledger student newspaper and took courses that focused on political science and history. He graduated in 2000 with a degree in politics, values, and society. “I graduated when I was 18,” he said. “I wanted to go to law school but realized I need to do some other things first.”

Evans spent the next couple of years working for the State of Washington and preparing to take the LSATs. He was accepted into the Seattle University School of Law in 2002. Upon graduation he moved back home to save money and to study for the bar exam. “I would come down to the library at UW Tacoma, put my ear phones in, pull out my laptop and read law,” said Evans.

The long hours of studying paid off. Evans passed the bar and soon after began working at the Office of Assigned Counsel. He’s one of 90 public defenders in Pierce County. Evans estimates he handles around 140 cases a year.

“I’ve been here for most of my life and I consider myself a local boy."

A public defender has an intimate relationship those they serve. These lawyers work with people in the most need of legal help. Evans understands this relationship and seeks to foster trust between the legal system and the community. In his role as President of the Pierce County Minority Bar Assocation, Evans has helped grow the group’s Youth in Law Forum. “We bring kids in from the local community and we teach them about the court system and try to have their first experience with the system be positive,” he said.

Evans credits his mother for his commitment to service. “From an early age my mom always pushed the idea of giving something back,” he said. She also played a role in making sure her son got an education.

The oldest of five, Linda Evans was the first in family to attend college. “By going to college and getting an education she was able to sort of change her circumstances,” said Joseph Evans. This message resonated with Evans and helped foster a lifetime love affair with learning. “I read a lot of books. I read a lot of history books specific to American history and the concepts behind our governmental system,” he said.

”From an early age my mom always pushed the idea of giving something back.”

Perry Mason first aired in 1957. The show is somewhat dated but fits within the mold of current television whereby everything needs to be wrapped up by episode’s end. The final few minutes were typically reserved for a plot twist followed by a big reveal. 

There are no twists or reveals here. Evans plans to stay in Pierce County and continue his work as a public defender. “I’ve been here for most of my life and I consider myself a local boy,” he said. 

So then, what you’ve read here is really just the beginning of what is already a pretty good story.

Section: 
Written by: 
Eric Wilson-Edge / August 2, 2016
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or johnbjr@uw.edu