Howardene “Denie” Garrett of Lakeland, who was known as a passionate legal advocate and leader in the Public Defender’s Office, died Wednesday less than two months after she was diagnosed with cancer. She was 65.

Garrett, who moved to Lakeland in 1989, served as chief of the capital division, chief of county court, chief of a felony division and assistant director of the felony division for the Public Defender’s Office in Bartow.

Earlier in her career, her work with lawyer Eleanor Jackson Piel defending two wrongfully convicted brothers on Florida’s Death Row resulted in their exoneration and release from imprisonment.

Here is her family-placed obituary:

Howardene Gay “Denie” Garrett passed away on April 29, 2020 after a short battle with cancer. Howardene was born on January 4, 1955 in Tampa, Florida to Marie Garcia Garrett and Howard Garrett.

Survivors include mother Marie Garrett of Tampa, husband of 40 years Austin H. Maslanik, daughter Irene Marie Garrett Maslanik of St. Petersburg, son Aaron Daniel Garrett Maslanik, daughter in law Megan Banfield, twin grandchildren Charlotte Marie and Jacob Thomas Maslanik age 2, all of Lakeland.

Additional survivors include sister Gloria Schofield (Lyndon), sister Leslie Garrett (Charles Warren), sisters-in-law Hilary Tanner (Ret), Loretta Lott (Richard), brother-in-law Stuart Maslanik (Candice) and 10 nieces and nephews. Howardene was pre-deceased by her father, Howard L. Garrett.

Howardene grew up in Tampa and graduated from Seaborn Day School on Davis Island where she lived with her family, Gorrie Elementary, Woodrow Wilson Junior High and Plant High School. Howardene graduated from Emory University with a degree in classics with high honors in 1976. Then, following in her parents’ footsteps who both graduated from the University of Florida College of Law, she graduated from UF Law in 1978 with honors.

The start of her brilliant career in criminal defense began in Fort Pierce as a public defender in the 19th Judicial Circuit, where she met her future husband. Then, in 1982, she returned to Tampa to practice with her father. During that time, she joined forces as a volunteer lawyer with Eleanor Jackson Piel to defend two wrongfully convicted brothers on death row in Florida. Ultimately, due to her zealous advocacy, they were exonerated and released from death row in 1988.

In 1983, Howardene returned to the work she loved as a public defender in the Sixth Judicial Circuit in Dade City, where she tried capital cases. In 1989, Howardene became a public defender in Bartow for the Tenth Judicial Circuit where she and her family had moved to Lakeland. In that office, she served as chief of the capital division, chief of county court, chief of a felony division and assistant director of the felony division. Howardene was board certified in criminal trial practice. In 2017, she received the prestigious “Craig Stewart Barnard ” award as Assistant Public Defender of the Year for the State of Florida. Howardene did all of this while raising Irene, assistant public defender in Clearwater, and Aaron, IT Department at Florida Southern College.

Howardene served as PTA president at Dixieland Elementary School and President of the Dreadnaught Band Boosters at Lakeland High School. Among many Florida Bar committees, she served on, she was Chairperson of the Judicial Nominating Commission for the Tenth Judicial Circuit. Other community activities included serving on the board of Tri County Community Services and serving as an Adjunct Professor at Florida Southern College.

Denie joined the congregation of College Heights United Methodist Church in 1989 shortly after moving to Lakeland. Denie was devoted to her faith and her church and, in addition to faithfully attending church, she served on the following committees: Trustees, Staff/Parish Chairperson, Church Council Chairperson, Finance Committee, Missions Team, and Discernment Team. She was proud of her work with the church to coordinate Justice for Our Neighbors, an outreach program to assist immigrants with legal issues.

Despite her busy and accomplished career in the courtroom and community, Denie was most proud of her family. She always considered the loving bond she shared with her husband and her children and, more recently, her grandchildren, the sweetest gift.

The family wishes to thank all who sent cards, flowers, food and, most of all, prayers and best wishes. Thanks also to Good Shepherd Hospice and especially her nurse, Carrie, who made her last days on Earth as comfortable as possible.

Because of the conditions occasioned by the Covid-19 virus, a proper visitation and Celebration of Life is not possible at this time and will be done when more favorable conditions exist. In lieu of flowers, the family plans to share causes near and dear to Denie’s heart at the time of the Celebration of Life.

Condolences may be sent to the family at Heath Funeral Chapel.

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Barry Friedman founded in 2015 as the culmination of a career in print and digital journalism. Since 1982, he has used the tools of reporting, editing and content curation to help people in Lakeland understand their community better.

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