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Didi Sallings, who led the Arkansas Public Defender Commission as its executive director for the first 20 of its 25 years, died over the weekend at her North Little Rock home. She was 56 and had been in poor health for some time.

Friends and colleagues said Monday that her greatest loves -- after her two children -- were her numerous pets and the two decades she devoted to establishing and refining Arkansas' indigent legal defense program.

Sallings, a famously petite woman at around 4 feet 10 inches tall, was an endless reservoir of compassion, they said.

On Facebook, Public Defender Teri Chambers described her mentor and former boss as a "tiny woman who was a giant in the criminal defense community."

Chambers also shared an October 2015 photograph of Sallings receiving a lifetime achievement award from the Arkansas Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers for a career defending the indigent.

"She was so tiny that you expected a tiny voice and a tiny opinion and what you got was the opposite of that and plenty of it," said Pulaski County Circuit Judge Cathi Compton.

Sallings' passion made her the standout candidate to be the commission's first director, said Compton, who as the commission's first chairman participated in the decision to hire Sallings in 1993.

Sallings had spent the previous year working with the Arkansas Capital Resource Center, formerly the Death Penalty Resource Center. Before that she spent about six months at the attorney general's office and more than five years with the Pulaski County public defender's office.

Sallings' passion for working to find justice for the state's poorest -- and often most scorned -- population was part of her deep love of life, Compton said.

"Didi was also in love with all creatures, great and small," Compton said. "I don't know if you could pick a favorite [of hers] but dogs and horses were high on the list."

Dorcy Corbin, whom Sallings hired in 1989, said Sallings' empathy was remarkable.

Salling, the daughter of a doctor and a noted amateur painter, was raised in comfortable conditions that kept her from the poverty and destitution of her clients. But Sallings was always able to see people beyond the unfortunate circumstances of their lives, Corbin said.

"It [her compassion] was deep within," Corbin said. "We need more people like her willing to stand up and do what's right, not to get a pat on the back but to do what's right."

Attorney W.H. Taylor of Fayetteville, one of the first commission members, recalled meeting Sallings 25 years ago, describing her as a tiny frail-looking woman who quickly revealed herself as a "warrior against the death penalty."

"She absolutely believed it was uncivilized and the state shouldn't be in the business of death," he said. "I don't think I have ever met anyone more opposed."

Sallings' legacy includes reshaping the professionalism of the state's defense bar by setting high standards and requiring the lawyers working for her to meet those standards, he said.

"She truly believed everybody was entitled to a fair shake and a good lawyer. Not just a lawyer but a good lawyer," Taylor said. "She did this by having high expectations for herself and every lawyer. That was non-negotiable with Didi."

Sallings stepped down as executive director in July 2013 but stayed on in a newly created appellate attorney position.

"I started the commission, was the first and only employee and didn't have a desk or a computer or didn't know anything about state government," Sallings told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette at the time. "I've loved it. It's like my third child. I'm ready to slow down a little bit; get back to practicing law and not being out at the Capitol as much."

But her final departure was more acrimonious. She sued the commission three years later, stating that she had been let go in January 2016 in violation of the Arkansas Whistleblower Act in connection with her testimony in another case. The suit was settled in December 2017, and the terms were not disclosed, court records show.

Sallings had endured repeated hospitalizations since retiring in 2016. North Little Rock police said Monday that Sallings' son found her deceased in her bed shortly before 11 a.m. Sunday.

Andrew Sallings, 28, who lived with his mother, told police she had seemed fine the last time he saw her, around 10:30 p.m. Saturday. He said Didi Sallings had heart problems and sepsis and had recently been released from CHI St. Vincent Infirmary in Little Rock.

She was on oxygen and had a feeding tube, and paramedics called to the home told officers that Sallings appeared to have passed away quietly during the night.

Metro on 07/17/2018

Print Headline: Longtime head of Public Defender Commission dies at 56

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