David Lauderdale

‘He had a tough job’: Longtime public defender Gene Hood dies in Beaufort

Gene Hood saw the worst of society.

Yet, following his death last Thursday, Hood is being remembered as a gracious, stand-up guy, always a gentleman.

He was for almost a quarter of a century the chief public defender for Beaufort County and the 14th Judicial Circuit.

In that job, he stood up for those few had any sympathy for. It could be the person who ran over a child waiting for a school bus or the man accused of beating an 81-year-old man during a robbery.

On and on that list could go for the legal defender of the indigent in Beaufort, Jasper, Allendale, Colleton and Hampton counties in the lower reaches of South Carolina’s Lowcountry.

“He had a tough job,” said Duffie Stone, the area’s chief prosecutor as 14th Judicial Circuit solicitor. “It’s not easy standing beside a client who goes to prison for the rest of his life. He often was literally arguing for people’s lives. He always fought hard for his clients, and he was always professional.”

Hood died at his home on Lady’s Island at the age of 73.

He retired in September 2016 and started playing all the golf he possibly could.

Hood’s neighbor Ed Saxon, general manager of the Beaufort-Jasper Water and Sewer Authority, was part of a group who played at The Legends golf course on Parris Island several times a week. They took a couple of golf trips each year to Santee and Jekyll Island, Ga.

“You could not have met a nicer guy,” Saxon said. “In the 20 years I knew him, I never saw him get upset, even when there were times he could have been upset.”

He said Hood loved shag dancing, and he loved the water, enjoying a beautiful view of the Coosaw River from his home.

It was the water and dirt roads of Beaufort County that brought Hood, his wife, Brenda, and their two children to the county in 1992.

He was a native of Kingstree who graduated from the University of South Carolina School of Law. He practiced law for 20 years with the U.S. Army, retiring as a lieutenant colonel after serving all over the world and exploring Europe with his family.

While on vacation on Hilton Head Island, he responded to an ad seeking a public defender for Beaufort County. He took the job a day later. After 15 years as chief public defender for the county, he was appointed chief public defender for the judicial circuit in 2008, when that job was created. He was reappointed to a second four-year term in 2012.

Hood pushed for lighter case loads for the staff and greater funding for the office.

“My guys can only do so much at one time,” he told the Associated Press in 2011. “We are outnumbered, and they keep giving law enforcement everything under the sun and giving the defense side of it a meager nothing.”

At the time, caseloads for public defenders statewide were several times the recommended limits and increasing as more people qualified for public defense.

He drove a wedge in the ongoing issue of who should pay for public defenders in municipal courts by pulling his staff off municipal court cases.

Saxon, whose daughter is a public defender in the 14th Judicial Circuit, said the staff loved Hood and that he was a good administrator.

Stone said his job as solicitor and Hood’s job were constantly in conflict.

“We always disagreed,” he said. “We never agreed on anything. But it was never personal. He was always a gentleman. There is an art to disagreeing without being disagreeable, and he knew it well.”

A celebration of life for Hood is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. Friday in the fellowship hall at First Presbyterian Church in Beaufort, followed by a funeral service at 1 p.m. at the Parish Church of St. Helena across the street. The funeral procession is to leave the church at 1:45 p.m. for burial in the Beaufort National Cemetery.

David Lauderdale: 843-706-8115, @ThatsLauderdale