Being Atticus Finch
Meet The Public Defenders
Emily Wallwork was born and raised in Charlotte, North Carolina. She became a public defender three years ago after receiving her Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and her Juris Doctor from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Law.
Unlike some of her colleagues, Emily didn’t attend law school with the intent of becoming a public defender. “I went to law school because I had a degree in English literature and didn’t know what else I was going to do with my life,” she says, “and got there and knew that whatever I decided to do had to be something useful. I just don’t think that there is anything more useful than representing somebody who is facing incarceration, a loss of liberty, and couldn’t otherwise afford an attorney.”
Although she did civil pro bono work in law school, interning at the public defender’s office was the turning point for Emily because she learned “the different standard of treatment people get, based on their class status, and knowing the different standard of treatment people get in the criminal justice system wasn’t just something I could just stand by and not be a part of fighting.”
Eddie Thomas, Jr. has been a public defender for three years. He grew up in Georgia and North Carolina, and received his Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from Winston-Salem State University and his Juris Doctor from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Law.
Eddie has always known he wanted to practice criminal defense because “growing up in the neighborhood that I did, working class, poor neighborhood, a lot of my friends got in trouble with the law and I didn’t feel like they got adequate representation…once I went to law school, I learned more about public defenders and I think that we have a chance to touch a greater amount of people.”
Like most public defenders, it is the people Eddie works with on a daily who keep the job exciting for him. “We get to represent a lot of good people who are just going through a bad time in their life,” Eddie says, and so he appreciates “the ability to be able to help them through the system and to be their advocate. We get to meet some wonderful people who have some amazing stories and [are] just generally good people.”
Danielle Maddox has been a public defender for the past two years. She has known she wanted to work in public defense since she was in high school.
“Back in high school, my parents were very ‘you need to figure out what you want to do with your life,’ and as a sophomore in high school they got me an internship—really just walking around with an attorney at Legal Aid—and I got to sit in my county’s local District Court and kind of just observe.”
During her internship, Danielle made a startling realization. “I watched a lot of private attorneys take court-appointed cases and treat those cases much differently than their retained cases; much differently than their paid clients. One that comes to mind is a man I went to church with, who was the kindest man you can think of, and I watched as he would be so kind to his retained clients, and some of his court-appointed cases he would snap at and just be really nasty to.”
Because of that experience, Danielle says, she knew that everyone, no matter their financial status, not only needed help and support, but respect as well. She received her Bachelor of Arts in Sociology from North Carolina State University and her Juris Doctor from the Elon University School of Law.
Why do it?
I asked the attorneys and support staff at the Mecklenburg County Public Defenders Office why they enjoy working at the office or why they believe public defense work is important. Click on each photo to see their responses.