Monday, February 9, 2009

Elected Public Defenders: A really bad idea

From reason:

Imagine the perverse, overly law-and-order sentiment that pervades the elections of judges and prosecutors now applied to the selection of who will represent the indigent accused.

Witness Matt Shirk, a Republican recently elected public defender in Jacksonville, Florida. Shirk, who was backed by the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, has never defended a homicide case. His campaign promises included a vow not to oppose funding cuts to the office he was running for, and a promise to squeeze as much money as possible out of indigent defendants, including a proposal for the postponed billing of acquitted defendants who might later be able to find some employment.

Shirk also promised during the campaign not to make drastic changes to the staff of the public defender office. But last week, he announced he’d be firing ten senior-level attorneys and three administrators.

As it turns out, several of the fired attorneys Shirk fired worked on the high-profile case of Brenton Butler, a 16-year-old wrongly accused of the robbery and murder of an elderly tourist.

The Butler case was a huge embarrassment for Jacksonville’s sheriff’s department. Trial testimony suggested Butler’s confession had been beaten out of him by detectives with the department. Butler’s case eventually became the subject of the Oscar-winning HBO documentary Murder on a Sunday Morning. The sheriff’s department apologized to Butler, and reopened its investigation into the murder.

You’d think the kind of attorneys who could expose that kind of injustice (and, of course, expose the fact that the tourist’s real killer was still on the loose) would be exactly the sort of people a public defender would want on his staff.

Pat McGuiness, one of the fired public defenders who worked on the Butler case, says Shirk hasn’t even had the time to interview or review the personnel files of the people he fired. McGuiness alleges that Shirk’s axing of some of the office’s most skilled and experienced attorneys was a favor, in exchange for the police support he received during the campaign.
Shirk has yet to respond to those allegations, or explain his rationale for the firings.

This is just utterly disgusting. I have difficulty saying anything that could possibly express the level of disgust I feel about this. And I read just after this another article about the ridiculously high incarceration rate in the United States. That article noted that voters pick harsh penalties over due process, every single freaking time. I wonder what can be done about that? Or is this always going to be the inevitable result of elected prosecutors and judges.

I mean, essentially, it sounds like these elected defenders mentioned above are getting elected to sabotage their offices and make it harder for indigent defendants to get due process. Like they want to faciliate convictions. That is not only morally wrong, but that is something they should be disbarred for. But of course, the system doesn't do disbarrments for crushing the rights of defendants. That's because the system is set up to convict, regardless of innocence or guilt, and to sentence as long as possible, regardless of what would really serve the interests of justice.



S said...

And what do the frustrated public defenders who are scrambling to do the best for all their clients when the biggest enemy to them doing their job properly is the head of their own damn agency?! It's bad enough for us pds to have to deal with the public hating us for defending scum, thinking we shouldn't be paid for by taxpayer dollars, and thinking we are terrible lawyers to boot. We shouldn't have to fight with the heads of our agencies, too. Yeesh.

armagh444 said...

::::pounds head on keyboard:::