Behind the Headlines

What is the role of a public defender?

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Q. How long have you been practicing law as a public defender? What made you decide to take this career path?

A. I have been a public defender here in Steamboat Springs for the past 15 years.

I graduated from law school at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C., 25 years ago this May and, although I had intended to be a public defender when I began law school, I was distracted by two friends I met in law school. Together we "hung a shingle" in Old Town Alexandria, Va., and I was in the private practice of law for the first seven years after I graduated from law school. We had a lot of fun and even had the privilege of twice appearing in the U.S. Supreme Court.

However, nobody told me in law school that the private practice of law is a business with accounts receivable, accounts payable, payroll taxes and the like, and it turns out that I didn't like and wasn't very good at the business side of the private practice of law. Thus, I went back to law school at the Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., where I accepted a clinical teaching fellowship with the intention of joining a law school faculty somewhere in the field of clinical legal education.

After completing the fellowship at Georgetown, I accepted a position as the clinical director and a tenure-track faculty member at the Georgia State University School of Law in Atlanta. However, after two years of teaching law I discovered that, while I loved teaching, and I especially loved working with young law students as they took their first steps in the courtrooms of Atlanta and the surrounding suburbs, I missed the practice of law even more. Thus, I decided it was time to return to what I had originally intended to do when I went to law school.

That is, I decided it was time to become a public defender, and I have done that ever since. Colorado had at that time, and still has perhaps the very best public defender system in the nation, and so I chose the Colorado State Public Defender over all the others I could have applied to. Steamboat Springs, on the other hand, just chose me.

I had no conscious memory of ever hearing of Steamboat Springs before I was offered a job here. I flew out to Denver for an interview in August 1986, and then rented a car and drove up here. I remember sitting on the deck of one of the restaurants on the mountain thinking to myself, "Oh my God. They're actually offering to pay me money to live here. I've died and gone to heaven." I've been here ever since. It is my home. I love it. And I have no intention of ever leaving Steamboat Springs.

Q. What are some of the misconceptions the public might have about a public defender?

A. As compared with most folks in the public defender system, I did it backwards. That is, most folks join the public defender system right out of law school rather than after almost 10 years of private practice and teaching law. Most folks use public defending as a means of getting some valuable trial experience and then, after a few years, move on to private practice or law teaching. As a result, there is a common misperception that public defenders are not as good or experienced as attorneys in private practice. There is also the perception that, as the coffee advertisement once said, "You get what you pay for." There is the belief that public defenders do this work because they can't find any other work. These beliefs could not be further from the truth.

Some of the very best and brightest criminal defense lawyers in Colorado now work for the Colorado State Public Defender, and most of the very best and brightest lawyers in the private practice of criminal law in Colorado began their careers as public defenders. As is true in other areas of government lawyering (e.g., the Attorney General and District Attorneys), there are a large number of public defenders who have chosen this work as their career choice. Not because they can't do anything else, but because the work is challenging and rewarding.

It is true that many public defenders come to this work straight out of law school and, as a result, lack experience. However, unlike in private practice where an attorney straight out of law school can accept any client that walks in the door, new public defenders start off with the least serious cases while they undergo extensive additional training from the older, more experienced public defenders in the system. There is close supervision and mentoring of young public defenders by older public defenders, and young public defenders are assigned the more serious cases first as co-counsel with older, more experienced public defenders. We do not simply turn new lawyers loose on the unsuspecting public. Instead, we make new public defenders earn the right to handle the more serious cases by demonstrating their abilities rather than by just graduating from law school.

Q. In your line of work, you obviously take on some unpopular cases. How do you deal with the stress that comes with defending someone who has committed a horrible crime and the "how do you sleep at night?" attitude you might get from residents?

A. The biggest difference between private practice and public defending is that, in private practice, I had the option of turning clients (and their money) away because I didn't like them or what they were accused of having done. I do not have that option as a public defender. I must take any client who comes my way regardless of how I feel about them or what they are accused of having done.

The other side of that coin, however, is that poor folks who must rely on the public defender have no choice in who their attorney is. They are stuck with the attorney they are assigned (there are two of us here in the Steamboat Springs office) whether or not they like us, and regardless of what they may have heard about us. Thus, it is true that "some unpopular cases" occasionally come my way. However, that is a fact of this business that one must resolve before ever getting into this line of work.

For me the stress comes not from "defending someone who has committed a horrible crime," but from the long hours that go along with such cases. I find myself working very many nights and weekends trying to keep up with the normal case load of relatively minor cases, as well as the "horrible crimes" that occasionally come my way. Fortunately, I love the work and I have a very understanding family.

Also fortunately, I have encountered very little hostility or "how do you sleep at night?" attitude in this community resulting from my obligation to take even the horrible cases that occasionally come my way. There appears to be a common understanding in this community that we are judged as a society by how we treat the least among us, and that "the least among us" includes those poor folks who are accused of, and in some cases are guilty of doing terrible things to other members of our community.

The Colorado and United States Constitutions guarantee every person accused of a crime the right to an attorney and to a trial by a jury of their peers. These rights are not extended only to those who are innocent, but to every person accused of a crime. Thus, the guilty and the innocent alike are guaranteed the rights to an attorney and to a trial by a jury of their peers. Moreover, even folks who do terrible things to others are guaranteed the rights to be treated with fairness and dignity by the state as the state endeavors to hold them accountable for what they have done. My job as a public defender is to see that this is done: to ensure that the state obeys the law in enforcing the law; and to ensure that the state treats my clients with fairness and dignity in enforcing the law. If the state can convince a jury that my client is guilty of the "horrible crime" he or she has been accused of, and if the state can do so with fairness and dignity while obeying the law, then the system has worked.

Simply put, I believe in the jury system, and I do not criticize or quarrel with jury verdicts. Folks who serve on juries are common citizens of our community. That is the beauty of our legal system. And if these folks listen to the evidence and render a verdict, nobody has the right to criticize their verdict. I certainly do not, and I hope others will not either.

Q. In your role as a public defender, what would you consider the toughest case you have taken and why?

A. I guess the case of Jamie James in Grand County in 1993 is the toughest case I have been assigned to. She was accused of, and ultimately pleaded guilty to, murdering her 10-month old daughter. As a parent and grandparent, it broke my heart.

I have the hardest time handling cases in which children are the victims. They are defenseless and dependent and, more often than not, the person accused of hurting them is the person on whom the child is most dependent.

However, I know from having children and grandchildren of my own that even children will occasionally lie or otherwise deviate from the truth, and so I do not blindly accept what they say without critical examination. But that does not make them easy cases. On the contrary, they are the toughest.

Jamie James was a single mother of a 10-month-old child living at or below the poverty level in Grand Lake. As Jamie disintegrated and slipped into the depths of mental illness, she tape recorded herself administering a lethal dose of Valium to her 10-month old daughter and taking what she thought was a lethal dose of Valium herself. Unfortunately, Jamie lived while her daughter died. Jamie ultimately received a concurrent commitment to the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo (the state hospital) and a 32-year sentence to prison, where she remains to this day. As in most such cases, there were no winners in this case only losers.

Q. What advice would you give to young lawyers who may be considering a career in public defense?

A. Go for it! Being a public defender is hard work with long hours and relatively low pay, but it is challenging and rewarding. Our constitutional criminal justice system would not work (and the state could not put any person in prison) without an attorney who is willing to stand with and speak up for the despised and the despicable in our community. It is easy to be identified as the champion and advocate of the victim. It is very difficult, and therefore ultimately incredibly rewarding to know that only we who practice the law of criminal defense stand between the criminally accused and the power of the state to take the liberty and even the life of its citizens.

It's a very frightening responsibility. But it is at the same time very rewarding.

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