At the reins of New York’s federal public defender office for two decades, Leonard F. Joy ’56 represented notorious defendants in cases involving international intrigue, terrorism plots and arms trafficking.

But Joy’s favorite case will always be one that reminds him why he transitioned into public defense as a young corporate lawyer. In 2000, Joy, who retired in February, represented a French mother who had forged travel documents to take her two young children out of France and away from their father, who she said beat her for seven years.

French officials, citing the 1980 Hague Convention, threatened to extradite Marthe Dubois if the federal District Court in New York did not send her children, ages 4 and 8, back to France.

The case was particularly satisfying for Joy, not just because he won but because it offered the rare thrill of defending someone “who was truly good.”

Though a defense attorney’s job is to ensure a vigorous defense, Joy said, defenders are not immune to the emotional weight of a client’s actions. A case like Dubois’ “puts forth a feeling that you’re really doing something for somebody who deserves it,” he said.

Joy grew up in Glen Ridge, N.J., with no lawyers in his family; his father was a musician and conductor. “I had absolutely no such skills, which was pointed out to me rather frequently,” explained Joy with a characteristic dryness.

Joy, the father of three grown children, now plans to enjoy time with his wife of 57 years.

After studying mathematics at Yale University and then law at Harvard, he began his career in corporate law. He did a stint as a bank vice president and became partner in an investment firm.

“Then I decided I would do something I had always wanted to, and that was try cases, but I really didn’t know how to try a federal case.” He volunteered for the Legal Aid Society in Manhattan. He was hired and moved to Brooklyn, which was swamped with cases. “If anybody ever wanted to learn how to do this, that would be the way. There’s nothing that substitutes for being in it and learning the process,” Joy recalled.

“When the foreperson stands up and says, ‘Not guilty,’ it’s a terrific rush and a kind of fun you never get tired of.”

In 1990 he became head of the federal defender unit, which later split from the Legal Aid Society. Defenders across four offices represent thousands of clients a year in New York’s District Courts.

Under Joy’s leadership the office has represented some of the most high-profile defendants prosecuted by the United States Attorney’s Office in New York, including, recently, would-be Times Square car bomber Faisal Shahzad and Russian sleeper agent Anna Chapman.

Despite the notoriety of some clients, Joy’s most memorable cases are ones that never received much public attention but supplied that jolt of excitement that never got old.

One such case was the trial of a U.S. Postal Service clerk accused of stealing a silver dollar out of a girl’s birthday card. Prosecutors argued that a coin found on the defendant was the missing property, but the defendant testified that he had always, ever since he could remember, kept a silver dollar in his pocket for good luck.

“Then the judge asked the jury if anybody had any questions, which was very rare,” Joy recalled. “And a juror asked if the judge would require the defendant to empty his pockets right then on the stand so they could see for themselves if there were any silver dollars in there.

“I nearly had a stroke. I was trying to do anything to stop this,” Joy said. “But the judge said it sounded very reasonable and asked my client to pull out his pockets in front of the jury. The defendant proceeded to pull one pocket inside out, and in it there was nothing. And then we came to the other pocket … and out came a silver dollar.

“Not the prosecutor’s finest hour,” chuckled Joy. “Now that’s a victory.”