Most public defenders know the disparaging names they're called. Everywhere they go, people look at them with a question mark in their eyes. Even their parents wondered why their offspring became a public defender instead of a rich civil litigator or a prosecutor. Their clients talk about being "dumped" onto the public defender caseload. Defendants and witnesses often mistakenly believe that a public defender is not a "real lawyer." People may ask them directly: How can you take the side of murderers, gangbangers and criminals?"
Most defenders see themselves as defenders of the Constitution whose role is to see that justice occurs, and are immersed in the timeless struggles of right and wrong, certainty and doubt, wickedness and virtue, suffering and hope. Their answers come from the Bill of Rights. Defense work means something to them. To the accused they represent, it can mean everything.
Many are still paying for the loans that financed their college and law school education, and may not be out of debt until they qualify for Social Security. Some started out in a private firm working on civil litigation, making big bucks, but they liked trial movies and wanted courtroom experience, so they made it their career.
In movies and news headlines, the clash between right and wrong engages teams of lawyers in dramatic Courtroom Theater. The defender's courtroom life is quite different: one lawyer carrying too many cases in court appearances measured in minutes.
They usually represent 50-100 defendants accused of felonies or misdemeanors. Prosecutors often have discretion to file a case as a felony or misdemeanor, leaving room for plea bargaining. Defendants may be also charged with violating probation or parole, raising the ante even higher.
Many defendants have failed to appear in court, some are already in custody awaiting trial on other charges, and some are on probation or parole for previous offenses.
The defense attorney may file suppression and other motions. Even if a motion is granted — a fairly rare occurrence — and the charges are dismissed, many defendants face other charges and remain in custody.
Most cases are resolved without trial by plea "bargains."
All too often the defendant is mentally troubled.
Defenders may raise concerns about their capacity to understand the proceedings and request a psychiatric review. Unfortunately, in jail they usually get little treatment or medication. Sometimes it may be better to say nothing so the defendant will be released — without treatment or supervision. Is this behavior a cry for help or just a ruse by an experienced con? Sadly, without such intervention, many of them will be back.
The accused include people who just "made a mistake." Some are repeat drug or property offenders, or have committed serious or violent crimes. Also among the accused are truly predatory people who are caught red-handed spreading fear and suffering. Why would anyone try to get them off?
Defenders answer that the accused already faces a judge and a prosecutor. They need someone who's on their side: "If a defendant who may be factually guilty goes free, it's not just because I did my job. It's because prosecutors didn't do theirs."
But it's hard to establish relationships with hundreds or thousands of indigent clients and not get hardened. Some of those they defend are "awful people." In the back of many attorneys' minds is the knowledge that someday one of them might be so enraged that he breaks out of the handcuffs and stabs the public defender in the neck with a toothbrush sharpened on the jailhouse floor, or slashes their face with a hidden razor blade.
There are things about the people who are represented by the public defender that make it even harder to represent them: Since they are usually too poor to afford a private attorney, they are probably unable to post bail, and remain incarcerated for weeks or months while awaiting trial. Many have been in court before — about 90% of indigent defendants have prior criminal records.
Anguish permeates every corner of most courthouses. This is not the faux emotion of reality television but a leaden gloom that bubbles just beneath the surface. Misery crowds onto hard benches — wives, girlfriends, boyfriends, mothers, aunts, children, victims and witnesses. Their whispered conversations cannot be shut out: "Three years is the best we can do." "He's got a prior strike." "How much marijuana was it?" "I'm sorry, but you'll have to come back."
Those who have never been a participant in the criminal justice system can only begin to imagine what boils down deep inside public defenders and how they cope with the realities of the world in which they toil.
Michael Weinberg of Sanger is an attorney and retired court employee.