Protecting Rights, Ignoring Critics

An essay on the stigma public defenders face every day



“Good for her, but I’d be more proud if she was a prosecutor.” And just like that, the proud grin from retelling the tale of my big sister’s win in court disappeared.

“Oh,” I replied, shying away from one of my relatives, thinking maybe I shouldn’t have opened my mouth.

One may think this was the first time I’d heard a negative reaction when I explained Chrissie’s job as a public defender, but in truth, it is something I should have expected. I may not feel the backlash of this expectation on a regular basis, but public defenders throughout the country do. And unfortunately, this prejudice is all around them: negative reactions from their family or friends, court officials and even clients.

It’s been two years since I first witnessed my sister in action, but it is a memory that keeps coming back to me. Clear as day, I see her standing and objecting to the prosecutor’s questions.

“Sustained,” the judge said casually, quite the opposite of courtroom scenes on TV. The prosecutor would then rephrase his question, and so it began.

“Objection.” “Sustained.” “Objection.” “Overruled.” “Objection.” “Sustained.” By the fourth objection, the prosecutor’s tone deepened while his voice rose. There was no question that he was frustrated. Seeing Chrissie in the courtroom, living out her dream, was pretty great, and it didn’t hurt that the judge ruled in her favor. But the reason that day has resonated with me for so long is what happened outside the courtroom, with just a quick exchange among three people.

“They found you not guilty, which means we won,” Chrissie explained to her client. “This won’t show up on your record; do you have any questions?” The petite blonde spoke while balancing the notes, files and law books in her arms.

“No questions. Thank you very much.” replied her client, an African-American female in her mid-twenties.

“Thank you so much,” the client’s boyfriend chimed in. “People like you don’t normally help people like us.”

And in that moment, I knew exactly why she chose the career she did, and I couldn’t have been more proud.

At the time, Chrissie was only in her fourth month as a public defender, and she has had countless clients in the two years since. But as it did with me, that case has stuck with her.

Justice is Blind-Or It Should Be

“It made me feel weird, but also proud,” she said to me recently, recalling that day in court. “It’s my job, so I don’t think about what my clients look like or what I look like. My whole life, I’ve never been like, ‘oh, these people look different than me.’ It was the first time that someone acknowledged the difference in background and community and that I [might not] look like someone who would want to help them because I’m a white girl. People just don’t expect another person to throw their everything into working hard and being passionate for them.”

Over the past year, I have gotten to know the public defenders in Mecklenburg County, N.C., where Chrissie works, and witnessed the passion they carry for their clients and their work every day. It’s this passion for helping people in their community, regardless of social or economic situation, which I believe needs to be shared with the world. Each new case brings a fresh challenge for public defenders, attorneys who are paid by the state to defend those who can’t afford to hire someone to speak on their behalf in court. Sometimes this passion relates directly to a case they are working on, and sometimes it relates to the people they may encounter.

Public defense work is about dedication, but also about fairness. It’s about giving everyone in the criminal justice system a fair shake. It’s about a passion for upholding the supreme law of the land, no matter the case or client in every courtroom.

Mama Knows Best

Some in the office consider her the “Misdemeanor Mom”; at least that was my first thought when I watched Tracy Hewitt interact with the attorneys that she supervises. Public defense may have been a career change for her, but the knowledge and passion she brings to the table is anything but second-hand.

Tracy supervises a group of mostly young misdemeanor defense attorneys in the Mecklenburg County Public Defender’s Office in Charlotte. She is relatively new to her job, which she took 10 years ago after deciding to move away from a lucrative position in the private sector to go to law school. Tracy said she wanted to help people, and public defense seemed to be the right fit.

“I was going to a church that had a lot of people who were really struggling, and I thought, man, if they can make it, doing all the really, really hard things that they are doing—facing poverty, and drug issues, and alcoholism—I can take the talents, and the desire, and the money that I have to do something that is more meaningful,” Tracey told me during an interview early on in my project research. “So, I went to law school.” I wanted to know why people choose to work as public defenders. It is a job that is anything but easy, and oftentimes thankless and even criticized by the general public.

Tall, with a welcoming smile and thick Southern accent, Tracy is nurturing yet blunt. These traits could be the reason she is able to brush off the naysayers she encounters. In her community, she receives mixed reactions in response to her choice of occupation. Some believe she is doing “God’s work,” which aligns with how she may describe her second career, but others think Tracy is on the wrong side of the law because she defends the indigent, whom some more privileged folks consider guilty before proven innocent.

“I saw a neighbor of mine, and she knows what I do, and her friend was on the porch, and her friend was like, ‘How do you sleep at night?’ I’m like, ‘Seriously, you just said that to me’?”

When I then asked how she responds to the critics, Tracy cocked her head to the side and said, “I think you just sort of throw the question back at them, which is like, ‘Oh, gosh, I’m not sure. You mean because we work so hard, that we’re just so busy, or what do you mean by that?’ And when people start talking to you, I think they figure out, ‘Oh, all right, it’s not what I thought it was’.”

I’ve learned over the past months that there will always be people in the world who disagree. And there will always be people who criticize because they don’t understand. But as public defenders, the attorneys in the Charlotte office believe their energy can be better spent defending their clients, as opposed to their career choice. “You can’t change everybody’s mind; you can only do the best work that you can do, and you know, if you know you’re doing the best work you can do, and how much it helps people, then after a while it doesn’t even bother you what people say or think,” said Tracy.

You Have the Right to an Attorney

The work of public defenders is necessary for the United Stated criminal justice to function in a fair and equal manner. The position of public defender, financed by local and state jurisdictions throughout the country, was mandated by Gideon v. Wainwright, a 1963 Supreme Court case that required states to provide counsel in criminal cases to represent defendants who are unable to afford to pay their own attorneys. These attorneys fight to protect the Constitution, and the rights of all citizens; yet they are judged themselves. Every person wants to be treated equally however, when that doesn’t happen, public defenders step up to speak for those who can’t afford to speak for themselves.

In Gideon, which was based on a Florida case, the Supreme Court interpreted the Sixth Amendment to mean that everyone, rich or poor, has the right to counsel, and if the accused could not afford an attorney, one would be provided for him or her. The Court’s opinion, written by Justice Hugo Black, stated, “…in our adversary system of criminal justice, any person haled (dragged) into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided…The right of the one charged with crime to counsel may not be deemed fundamental to fair trials in some countries, but it is in ours.” This being said, unfortunately, there are still Americans who don’t understand the purpose of public defense and why public defenders are essential. And they often, like my relative who was so critical of Chrissie's job, believe that defending poor people is a waste of their "taxpayer's dollars."

Getting a Fair Shake

 “The bottom line is that most of the folks that walk into a courtroom are in trouble and regrettably, a lot of them did something wrong," said public defender Peter Nicholson, who works in the felony unit in Charlotte. "What I think our job, and what I think my job, what I think a public defender’s job, is to give them a fair shake, to give them stand up, to give them fair process, fair process is the most important thing,” Nicholson, whose law career is also a second career choice, points out that defending the downtrodden creates a level playing field for everyone in the system.. “What’s important is that we give them the strongest process possible...because when you give somebody due process you vest them into our system, you vest them into the country. Win, lose or draw, they feel like they got a fair shake…it’s important for folks to respect our process and respect our country and these myths that perhaps we hold so high are true.”

But unfortunately, public defenders must answer not only the questions of neighbors, friends and colleagues in the legal community, but also those from the very people for whom they work. I asked a veteran attorney, one who represents those accused of homicides, murder, rape and child sex offense cases, about the struggles he faces when representing his clients. The answer I heard was one I wasn’t expecting.

Respect Must Be Earned

“Probably the most difficult one is credibility with our clients,” said Dean Loven, a 15-year public defender in the Charlotte office with a full white beard and large-frame glasses. “Many times they feel that because you are a public defender, that you are not as good as an attorney. It can be very difficult for them to accept what the public defender is saying to them.”

Dean, who wrote the book North Carolina Evidence: 2014 Courtroom Manual, spends his time investigating, researching and piecing together countless puzzles, which is why I was taken aback by his answer.

“Our clients, and especially their families, quite often hold public defenders in low regard,” Dean continued.  “I’ve had family members say, ‘well, I know you’re only doing this job until you get your law license.’”  That question is the single most common answer I myself have heard from public defenders when I asked them about their clients’ views toward appointed representation, but what Dean told me next was a first. Because public defenders are paid to represent indigent clients, those clients actually view their court-appointed attorneys as inexperienced trainees who exist on the lower rung of the legal ladder.

“You get insults from your clients all the time: ‘I know you’re working for the state, you’re the public pretender,’” Dean says with an eye roll. I have the feeling he has heard that one on more than one occasion. “There’s a common misconception that we are not attorneys, we do not have the same ethical obligations to our clients as retained counsel and therefore we are constantly dealing with the stigma, because we are a public defender, and our paycheck is cut by the state, that somehow that affects the quality of representation we provide.”

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

So how does a public defender earn the respect from his clients in order to combat the stigma?

“The best way to answer that is through our actions,” said Dean. “When we zealously advocate for our clients; when we are able to obtain good results. When they compare our performance to other attorneys. They talk in the jail, or they will talk among themselves in court, and they will find out that many times we do a better job than other attorneys because this is our full-time job of representing only appointed cases. We’re able to do a better job with it, and so the best way to answer that is by our deeds.”

And that they do. Just ask Susan Weigand, an assistant public defender who worked in the Mecklenburg office when the now-Chief Public Defender, Kevin Tully, was just starting out. In her 30 years in the job, Susan, often referred to as "Sweigs" around the office, is petite and sassy. Always dressed to the nines, she has a certain swagger about her, which is apparent when she walks into a room full of young attorneys. It’s her no-B.S. attitude, combined with her passion to help people, that makes for a passionate, successful attorney. 

Susan defends child abuse cases. She tends not to hear as many negative comments from the general public and believes the stigma from clients “just sort of goes with the territory.” It’s the negative view of public defenders from other court professionals that bothers her.

“What really irks me the most is the stigma I get from other lawyers,” Susan begins as she describes how her husband’s co-workers, who are civil defense attorneys, used to view her career. “It was basically, ‘your wife can’t get a job’ until one of their children gets arrested and then it was like, ‘do you still do what you do?’”

Susan then sits up, adjusts herself and continues. “[My co-worker] Mark Towler and I were representing a young man who had killed a paralegal uptown when she wouldn’t give up her Jeep and I remember the president of the Bar…got on the news and said,” she pauses and checks her notes, as if not to forget anything, “‘he’s killed one of our own’ and I called her up and reminded her that two of her own were going to be representing this young man, so I would appreciate it if she wouldn’t make those kind of comments.”

Susan is not afraid to let others know when they are misinformed. And she is definitely not going to shy away when it comes to the rights of her clients. “It really does irk me and I try to correct them, particularly when they say things like, ‘that was just a mere technicality’ and I say ‘I don’t think the United States Constitution is a mere technicality.’”

A Victory for the Constitution

The Sixth Amendment guarantees every person accused of a crime the right to legal counsel. With sixty attorneys and additional support staff, such as investigators and paralegals, the Mecklenburg County Public Defenders Office works to ensure that this right is not only upheld, but also carried out to the best of its ability for every person who walks into the office.

During the past ten months of research, I have come to learn that whether or not an accused person is guilty or innocent, public defense is about more than simply arguing a case. It’s about making sure that every American—regardless of their economic status or the color of their skin—receives a fair shot in front of any judge. Not because it is the right thing to do, but because it is necessary in order for our justice system to function the way our Founding Fathers intended it to.  Some will always view poor defendants as guilty, even before their day in court, but it is undeniable that every time a public defender steps into the courtroom, they are there to make sure that the person sitting next to them has a chance to be heard.

“The constitution requires that we protect people’s rights and a lot of people don’t even know what their rights are,” Chrissie said to me. “So I like being on their team to make sure their rights are being acknowledged.”

And as I was about to end the conversation she left me with this quote from Justice Hugo Black and the Gideon v. Wainwright ruling: “There can be no equal justice where the kind of trial a man gets depends on the amount of money he has.”