Above: The Thompson family.
By Elizabeth F. McNamara
When Olin Thompson III was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – ALS – in 2018, he was 46 years old and at the peak of his career as a federal public defender. On Friday, Thompson received an honorary doctorate from the Roger Williams University School of Law for his contributions to the legal profession and the community.
While his active law career may be over – he retired a few months ago – his impact continues to resonant. Public defenders choose to represent the very people most of us shun. Thompson did it with vigor and dedication.
“Simply put, Olin has contributed more to the cause of justice and fairness than any other member of the bar of the federal court during my 18 years on the bench,” said U.S. District Court Judge William Smith. “But he is not only a great advocate; he is a truly wonderful person and colleague – honest, tenacious, kind, generous, funny and always helpful. I am so proud that he is receiving this honor. It is so richly deserved.”
Thompson grew up in Providence and Newton, Mass. He met his wife Christa when they were both 14 years old at Camp Fuller in South Kingstown. Their camp courtship blossomed into marriage. Together with their sons – Olin IV, Atticus and Nathaniel – they live in East Greenwich.
Olin earned his undergraduate degree in political science at Vassar, then got his law degree at Duke. His first job out of law school was as a public defender for the State of Rhode Island.
U.S. District Court Judge Mary McElroy worked with him there (and again later at the Federal Public Defender office).
“Simply put Olin is the best colleague anyone could hope for. He is an incredibly talented attorney. He is one of the smartest and most intuitive trial attorneys I have known. He is also compassionate and understanding and is always able to connect with clients, McElroy said. “But, as importantly, Olin looks at the bigger picture. He works hard to address the issues that drive people into the criminal justice system and to try to end the cycle of recidivism. Systemically he worked hard on such projects as the federal court’s reentry court and the governor’s criminal justice reinvestment working group. Things like that can be game changers for people.”
Indeed, Thompson brought that effort to East Greenwich, where he served on the East Greenwich Juvenile Hearing Board from 2014 to 2020, the last four years as chair.
Bob Houghtaling, who counsels many of the youths who appear before the hearing board, praised Thompson’s steady guidance.
“He’s very fair and very youth-focused,” said Houghtaling. “He really believes the hearing board can be a tool to restore kids to better functioning in the community, ascertaining the long game as opposed to just the punitive aspect.”
Thompson joined the Federal Public Defender office for Rhode Island in 2002. After a stint in private practice, he returned in 2008, where he served as supervising assistant federal defender until he recently retired.
“Olin is the consummate public defender: dedicated to his work, caring toward his clients, and supportive of his colleagues,” said Federal Public Defender Miriam Conrad. “Olin has represented his clients with brilliance, tenacity, and creativity. His efforts have saved countless clients many years of undeserved prison time. While being a public defender in federal court is challenging and often frustrating, Olin’s sense of humor, even keel, and fundamental decency have never flagged.
She added, “Even after his disease limited his ability to work in the office, Olin continued to work from home, reviewing old cases that might qualify for reduced sentences and fighting for those clients. That speaks volumes of his commitment to his work and his compassion for our clients. I am so proud to have worked alongside him. I am lucky to have learned from him.”
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