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Flo Messier, assistant district attorney, mental health advocate, and former actress and model, has died at 69

"She was a vigorous advocate for fairness and justice for Philadelphia citizens with mental health issues charged with crimes," a colleague said. Another said: "She was gorgeous inside and out."

Ms. Messier worked in mental health court as both a public defender and an advocate in the District Attorney's Office.
Ms. Messier worked in mental health court as both a public defender and an advocate in the District Attorney's Office.Read morePhiladelphia District Attorney's Office

Flo Messier, 69, of Philadelphia, the supervisor of the mental health unit for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, former attorney for the Defender Association of Philadelphia, and a former actress and model, died Tuesday, Aug. 2, of a heart attack at home.

Ms. Messier spent two decades working in New York and elsewhere as an actress and model before graduating from the University of Massachusetts and Georgetown University Law Center in the 1990s. Naturally empathetic and inspired as a graduate intern by a case that featured a falsely accused defendant, she went on to dedicate her legal career to assisting young people and others in mental health court.

“She was an extraordinary advocate for justice and people with behavioral health issues, and made transformative changes to how those most vulnerable defendants are treated in the criminal justice system,” said Jane Roh, communications director for the District Attorney’s Office.

To that end, Ms. Messier worked for the Defender Association of Philadelphia, mostly in its mental health unit, for nearly 18 years and was recruited by Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner to run his mental health department. “I hope to make a difference,” she said after joining Krasner’s office in 2018.

“She went from one legal side of the issue to the other,” said her sister Jean Keefe. “She was fiercely compassionate about mental health treatment and was supportive when Larry Krasner told her of his ideas.”

Over her years in Philadelphia, Ms. Messier was a featured speaker and panelist at meetings and symposia about the justice system and how it handles people with mental illness and intellectual and development disabilities. She was a mentor to countless interns and others in both the public defender’s office and the District Attorney’s Office, and was lauded for her legal skills, managerial prowess, and ability to work with everyone she encountered.

“She was meticulous, well-prepared, and always thinking five steps ahead because she was a true expert in her profession and knew all the steps,” said Arona Erez Gur, who worked with Ms. Messier as an intern in the public defender’s mental health unit and later as an assistant district attorney.

At Georgetown, Ms. Messier wrote about the racial and cultural impacts of jury selection in mental health cases and the experiences of alien defendants in criminal proceedings, and her work was cited in several publications. She was on the school’s American Criminal Law Review editorial board and won the 2000 Michael Feldman Advocacy Award as the “outstanding advocate” in the school’s criminal justice clinic.

After graduation, she became especially critical of the treatment of mentally ill prisoners, and her words inspired other advocates. “When I say they are the ‘forgotten among the forgotten’ I need to give credit to one of the public defenders, Flo Messier, at the Defenders Association in Philadelphia,” Witold Walczak, of the American Civil Liberties Union, said in an online interview for OC87 Recovery Diaries. “That’s a term that she used, which really resonated with me.”

Chris Angelo, an attorney for the Defender Association, said: “She succeeded in shining a light on this area, and in so doing making things better.”

Born March 23, 1953, in Cambridge, Mass., Ms. Messier was a gregarious, theatrical girl with an affinity for comedy. She starred in many of her high school dramas and was nicknamed Ziggy in reference to Flo Ziegfeld Jr., the famous Broadway producer of the popular Ziegfeld Follies and other musicals.

She moved to New York after high school and found work as a model and in summer stock and off-Broadway productions. She married Ron Wilfert in the mid-1980s, and they divorced about 10 years later.

She traveled to Europe, Russia, and Africa, often learning the languages of her destinations before her arrival. She transitioned in her early 40s to a law career, she said, because lawyers are basically actors anyway.

“She was a hoot and a half,” said her niece, Elizabeth Tabron. “She had a sense of fun and made sure to live life to its fullest.”

Ms. Messier enjoyed poetry and named her dogs Byron, Keats, and Rocky O. She visited Disney World many times, had a wicked sense of humor, joined an astronomy club, and was a popular ranked amateur tennis player at the Germantown Cricket Club

She lived in Mount Airy but was known by name throughout the city. “You could not walk a block in Center City with her without hearing someone call out for Flo, whether it was a judge or a former client,” Gur, her colleague, said. “And she treated everyone with the same warmth. …It was a privilege to learn from her about the law and life. I miss her so much.”

In addition to her sister, niece, and former husband, Ms. Messier is survived by sister Rita Hinc and other relatives.

She requested that no services be held.

Donations in her name may be made to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, 424 E. 92nd St., New York, N.Y. 10128, and the World Wildlife Fund, 1250 24th Street, N.W. Washington, DC 20037.