Thankless, but essential

March 9, 2013 8:19:21 PM

Sarah Fowler - sfowler@cdispatch.com

 

Some do it for the thrill. Others do it because they feel it is a lifelong calling. Some do it because they simply need a job out of law school.  

 

But ask any attorney who serves as a public defender and you will hear that it is, most often, a thankless job. Not only do the court-appointed attorneys fight for their client, some say they also fight the public perception that they are inferior to their paid counterparts. 

 

The life of a public defender can vary on a daily basis. As court-appointed attorneys, they can be given a caseload that ranges from clients charged with burglaries to drug charges to murder.  

 

When a defendant cannot pay for legal representation, they are appointed a public defender by the court.  

 

Lowndes County has five public defenders who are assigned a caseload of 80 to 100 cases a year. They earn a flat annual salary of $37,728. They are also eligible for insurance coverage and state retirement.  

 

Local attorney and public defender Carrie Jourdan said she battles the stigma of being a court-appointed attorney every day. Jourdan said people assume that because public defenders are paid a flat fee, they do the minimum amount of work possible. According to Jourdan, that's simply not true. Jourdan said that being a public defender, she actually has to do more with less.  

 

"I really dislike when people say we're not getting paid," Jourdan said. "We are getting paid to do a job. It's technically a part-time job but it's demanding. We don't have a staff, most of our equipment is donated. Almost all of us use our own staff."  

 

By contrast, District Attorney Forrest Allgood has a budget for experts. "We don't," Jourdan said. 

 

In the state of Mississippi, three counties -- Hinds, Washington and Harrison -- have full -time public defenders. In Lowndes County, the public defenders are appointed by the judges and are considered part-time. However, while they are required to be available the four times a year for Circuit Court term, Jourdan said the role of a public defender is, in fact, a year-round obligation.  

 

"It's demanding," she said. "You have to work to prepare cases, study the case files, interview witnesses. It's really a full time job." 

 

 

 

A state-wide system? 

 

Leslie Lee, with the Office of the State Public Defender, said her office was created to help ease the burden of local public defenders. Established by the state legislature in 2011, the Office of the State Public Defender merged the Office of Capital Defense Counsel with the Office of Indigent Appeals. 

 

Lee, who has been with the office since its creation in 2011, said the goal of the legislation is to ultimately create a state wide public defender system. Until then, Lee said she uses her experience as a former prosecutor to see cases from the other side of the spectrum.  

 

"When you're a prosecutor, you get a case file that has already been investigated by the police. They have evidence, witnesses. When you're representing a defendant, you have to start from scratch. You have to get state's evidence, interview witnesses," Lee said.  

 

Lee said another new aspect of her job is people questioning why she does what she does. As a prosecutor, Lee said people rarely question the reasoning behind your profession. As a public defender, however, she is constantly asked about the propriety of the work she performs. 

 

"I get asked, 'How can you defend someone who is guilty?'" 

 

Her reply: "It's not our job to decide guilt or innocence, it's to advocate," she said. "We are there to make sure that the police and the prosecution follow the rules and put together a defense, even if the outside world feels (the defendant) has no defense. That's what we have trials for." 

 

Lee said part of her love for her career is embedded in her love of the Constitution and what it represents.  

 

"For those of us that love the Constitution, part of the Constitution requires that if the government is going to take away your freedom, they have to jump through some hoops," she said. 

 

Much as it is with Lee, Jourdan said respect for due process and fairness is a powerful motivator.  

 

"I'm not thinking, 'Oh my god that (alleged victim) could have been me.' I'm thinking, 'I'm representing a fellow citizen and I want to make sure all of his rights are protected,'" she said. "It's the state's job to protect the victim and to enforce the laws and it's the jury's job to decide who is innocent or who is guilty. The beauty of our country is that we're all free from unreasonable intrusions from the police and our government. That's the reason that we have that beautiful freedom and I think we all forget that. The Constitution is a piece of paper but without the judicial system enforcing it, it would just be a piece of paper. 

 

"I personally feel a great sense of pride in my role in that." 

 

 

 

Formal complaint system 

 

While Jourdan takes pride in making sure her clients receive fair and equal treatment, some clients are unhappy with the work of a public defender.  

 

Adam Kilgore, with the Mississippi Bar Association, said a small percentage of the approximately 550 complaints his office receives each year is in reference to public defenders. However, Kilgore noted that just because a complaint is filed, that is not necessarily indicative of any wrongdoing on the part of the public defender.  

 

"We do receive some bar complaints against public defenders," Kilgore said. "While there are times (complaints) result in discipline because there is proof of a violation of the rules of professional conduct, by and large, the complaints we receive result in dismissal because of no ethics violation," he said.  

 

Kilgore added that due to the nature of the cases and the clients whom public defenders represent -- often criminal cases with severe potential jail time -- complaints are a natural part of the process. 

 

"Criminal defense lawyers, along with personal injury lawyers and lawyers that handle divorces, tend to receive the bulk of the bar complaints," he said. "In these instances, quite often a lawyer is dealing with a client who is not educated on the criminal process and is more apt to misunderstand what is taking place in their case." 

 

Jourdan said the people who are not as educated on the judicial system are the ones she feels the biggest pull to help.  

 

"A lot of my clients I feel driven to help them because they are this overlooked underbelly of our community," Jourdan said. "This whole generation of lost children. They're born to young mothers, they don't have a father figure, they drop out of school. I am driven to try to be that one person to try to make a difference."  

 

Jourdan said one client she is especially proud of representing is Kennedy Brewer, who was tried, convicted and sentenced to death for the 1992 murder of three-year-old Christine Jackson in Noxubee County. Jackson was the daughter of Brewer's live-in girlfriend. The toddler was raped and strangled before being tossed in a Noxubee County creek.  

 

Fifteen years after Brewer's conviction, Justin Albert Johnson confessed to Jackson's murder. After Johnson's confession, DNA evidence cleared Brewer of the murder. Throughout the ordeal, Jourdan was at Brewer's side.  

 

Jourdan said occasionally people will stop her on the street or in the grocery store and thank her for representing a family member.  

 

"Those are the stories that keep you going," she said.  

 

While she does get stories like Brewer's, Jourdan said there are cases where she has to represent a teenager accused of a crime that could send him to prison for the rest of his life.  

 

As she often does in closing arguments, Jourdan tries to let the jury know that she isn't just a lawyer, but a mother, too. That emotion is evident as she speaks of the countless young defendants she has worked tirelessly to help.  

 

"I have a son and it is so difficult, so difficult, because you think but for the grace of God, that could be my family," she said. "Those cases are hard. That's the stuff that makes you lay awake at night." 

 

 

 

Study backs public defenders 

 

For Ed Burnette, a lawyer with the National Legal Aid and Defender Association in Washington, D.C., difficult cases like the ones Jourdan mentioned are all too common.  

 

He has been a public defender for more 20 years and still speaks with a heavy sadness about a client he represented who was sentenced to the death penalty.  

 

Burnette describes that 20-year-old case in vivid detail, almost as if he were standing in the courtroom giving his closing arguments.  

 

Burnette, then working as a public defender in Cook County, Illinois, was charged with defending a man accused of killing his ex-girlfriend and her 10-year-old child. Despite Burnette's best attempts, including a visit to Clarksdale to interview the man's mother, his client was found guilty and sentenced to death.  

 

Although the man's sentence was later changed to a life sentence, the case still haunts Burnette.  

 

"I found it traumatic and it had more impact on me than probably anything else in my professional career," he said. "When you have someone depending on you to save their life, that has an impact. It's something that I'll never forget." 

 

Years after Burnette left the Cook County public defender's office, an independent study was conducted on the effectiveness of public defenders compared to private attorneys. Conducted by the University of Texas San Antonio, the study used Cook County court records to make its case.  

 

Led by Richard Hartley, the study tested the effectiveness of public defenders by comparing nearly 3,000 cases in Cook County. The cases were judged on four criteria: the decision to grant bail, plea-bargaining decisions, whether or not the defendant served jail time and the length of sentencing for those who were convicted.  

 

In an article published in the Journal of Criminal Justice, Hartley concluded that there was not a measured difference between public defenders and private counsel.  

 

"This study suggests that there is little difference in the quality of legal defense provided to defendants by private attorneys and public defenders," Hartley wrote.  

 

"The type of attorney representing the defendant was not influential on any of the four decision-making points examined here. The overall results of this study generally support the idea that there is no difference between private attorneys and public defenders regarding case outcomes."  

 

Burnette said he feels that, to a degree, public defenders can spend more time with their clients than private attorneys.  

 

"One of the myths of public defenders as compared to private lawyers is that private lawyers spend more time with their clients," Burnette said. "My experience is that private counsel gives time commiserate with what the money allows them to do. So, if you pay someone, you know they have to figure out how to use that money.  

 

"In the public sector, even though the caseloads may be higher because the public defenders cannot choose the clients that they have, I think they tend to spend more time with clients than private counsel does." 

 

Burnette said he believes public defenders are an essential part of the American justice system.  

 

"People need to know that there is value in public defenders and defense counsel, generally," he said. "Those are the individuals who keep the system in check for individuals who don't have a voice. If properly resourced, they provide for a more effective criminal justice system, not just a more effective defense but a more effective criminal justice system." 

 

Jourdan said since public defenders in Lowndes County are considered part-time, she and the other four public defenders are experienced and established in their careers. She said that knowledge gives them the opportunity to represent their clients to the best of their ability.  

 

"Lots of public defenders are very, very dedicated," Jourdan said. "They care and they want to make a difference. In Lowndes County, we have very experienced public defenders. They are human beings and they can get worn down by the sheer weight of the numbers. You have to guard against that and sometimes just take a step back.  

 

"But we're very lucky to do what we do."

Sarah Fowler covers crime, education and community related events for The Dispatch.