Trailblazing Judge Patricia Gifford leaves strong legacy

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Retired Marion Superior Court Judge Patricia Gifford, the sixth woman to sit as a trial judge in the state of Indiana and one of the first women in the country to be assigned to prosecute only sex offense cases, died April 8 in Fort Meyers Beach, Florida. She was 79.

Described as a quiet person who did not call much attention to herself, Gifford was thrust into the national spotlight when she presided over the Mike Tyson rape trial in 1992.

Trial attorney Linda Pence, litigation partner who leads the white collar crime group at SmithAmundsen LLC, had recently returned to Indianapolis and was offering analysis of the trial for the local CBS affiliate. During the entire event, Pence was either in the courtroom or in the basement of the courthouse watching the proceedings on closed-circuit television.

To this day, she remains impressed with how Gifford maintained her composure, controlled the courtroom and offered impartial judicial rulings in the middle of a media circus. When the entire world is watching a court case, some judges change their behavior, Pence said, but Gifford was never rattled.

“She was a remarkable lady,” Pence said.

Gifford graduated from Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law in 1968. Prior to her legal studies, she taught in the Washington Township schools in Indianapolis and the Army Dependent Schools in Germany.

She entered private practice after she completed her law degree. Gifford worked as an associate at the law firm of Runnels and Rademacher but quickly moved into public service, joining the Indiana Attorney General’s office in 1969. Then she became a deputy prosecutor for Marion County in 1972.

While a prosecuting attorney, she and Susan Porter, now retired, were appointed to the Marion County Rape Task Force where they were assigned all rape cases in the county. They were the first women in the United States to be appointed to such work.

Porter said at that time, few women who had been assaulted would report the crime to the police and of those who did, their cases were often passed from one male attorney to another, leaving the victims feeling like they had been raped again by the justice system.

The work of Gifford and Porter was aided by having female police officers assigned to investigating the charges and by Indiana’s rape shield law, which prohibited public exposure of the victim. At the center of the task force were the two women prosecutors.

“I think Pat can best be described as grace under pressure,” Porter said. “You always knew where you stood with her.”

The Watergate scandal in Washington swept the local Republicans from office and with them, Gifford and Porter. However, in 1975, Gifford returned when she became a referee for the Marion Juvenile Court. She then won the 1978 election and took her seat on the bench, handling mostly felony cases. She retired in 2008.

Criminal defense attorney Bob Hammerle, of counsel at Hackman Hulett LLP, remembered practicing in Gifford’s courtroom as a young lawyer. The cases involved very violent crimes and the trials were contentious, so sometimes the emotions spilled over. However, Hammerle said he always admired Gifford and had great respect for her.

He recalled representing a man who was entering a guilty plea for burglary. The prosecutor detailed how the defendant had climbed to the top of the building, sliced through the roof, scaled down a rope ladder and broken into a safe.

Hearing the tale, Gifford commented, the man “sounded like a professional.”

The prosecutor then told the court the defendant had prior convictions for burglary in Kentucky and Georgia and was currently on probation for burglary in Florida. Hammerle remembered his client taking the opportunity to challenge Gifford’s characterization.

“Doesn’t sound like much of a professional now, does it, your honor,” the defendant injected.

It was a story that continued to bring smiles to Hammerle and Gifford for years afterward.

In addition to her tenure on the bench, Gifford was a strong supporter of the Indianapolis Legal Aid Society. She served on the board of directors from 1978 to 2003, when she became an emeritus member.

John Floreancig, executive director of ILAS, saw Gifford’s work at the not-for-profit as an extension of her strong religious faith and desire to help people. The Legal Aid Society remains grateful for her long support but noted, for all her public service, Gifford was not one to draw attention to herself.

“She was very quiet,” Floreancig said. “She did a lot of stuff, but nobody knew about it.”

Services will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday at Geist Christian Church. Visitation will be from 4 to 7 p.m. Friday and 9 to 9:45 a.m. Saturday. In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to the Indianapolis Legal Aid Society or to the Disciples Church Extension Fund. 

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