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Justice for All: A Day in the Life of a Public Defender

Many people can relate to feeling like there aren’t enough hours in the day. But public defenders here in Missouri say try combining that with low pay, little gratitude, not enough resources, and conditions where someone’s constitutional rights are on the line, and you would get a glimpse of what they see day in and day out. As part of our series, “Justice for All: The Missouri Public Defender System in Crisis,” KSMU’s Jennifer Moore reports.

Inside the Springfield Public Defender office, attorney Shawn Markin is looking through docket papers preparing for that day’s two courtroom appearances. In one case, he’s defending someone who faces the possibility of life in prison for allegedly robbing a house with a gun, and Markin says the witness has had difficulty identifying his client.

Right now, Markin has around 100 open cases, a number that is down since the public defender system received some additional attorneys last year. His office has stopped taking new clients for the remainder of the month because it’s reached full capacity.

Markin spends about two to three days a week in the courtroom, which he says doesn’t leave much time for research and meeting with clients. He says there are some cases in which he feels he’s been effective, but not completely prepared—and that weighs on him.

Markin: “There have been times where I’ve had a case that’s ready for trial and I’ve not been able to either contact witnesses, or possibly not get evidence that my client has told me about due to time constraints and having to deal with other cases I have to deal with as well.”

Moore: “I would say witnesses and evidence are pretty important in a case.”

Markin: “Yes, they are. They very much are.”

Moore: “Do you think that there are people who have been found guilty in part because the public defenders were not able to defend them in the best way someone with more time could have?"

Markin: "I don’t want to answer that question."

According to a 2009 brief dubbed “The Spangenberg Report,” spearheaded by Robert Spangenberg of George Mason University, Missouri public defender offices average one secretary per every five attorneys, one investigator per every 6.7 attorneys, and one paralegal per every 67 attorneys.

At the Greene County Courthouse’s security gate, I'm asked to leave my recorder at the door...but I'm still allowed into the courtroom with Markin.

Public defenders say they are often forced to practice what they call “meet-and-greet” representation—that’s where they literally meet the client a few minutes before heading into court, and try to wing it from there. Fortunately for Markin’s clients on this day, he’s had a chance to talk to both of them before now.

The less serious case Markin is representing is called up first…but no one can find the defendant. Finally, the bailiff turns to the public seating area and says the defendant’s name loudly. “That’s me,” says a young man in the front. The bailiff points out to Markin that his client is sitting right there. “You didn’t even remember me?” the client asks. “No, no. I did, I did,” Markin tries to reassure him.

That situation sounds all too familiar to Tommi Green.

[Sound: “All his diplomas and everything are still in there…”]

She was a water law attorney in Colorado, and her husband, whom she didn't wish to name, was a public defender there. They decided to move to Missouri, where he would go into private practice, making more money and allowing her to be a stay-at-home mom to their daughter. So they moved here, and he began making $80,000 a year.

“But he missed the public defenders every day. He just felt like there were people in this world that needed help. He was very geared toward the public defender type of work, the indigent people,” she said.

So, he started working as a public defender again, this time in the Springfield office. They went from paying for a nice truck in cash to struggling to make monthly payments on a Toyota Corolla with 150,000 miles. She says the number of open cases he had was extraordinary.

“A lot of times it went well over 200. And you could tell the caseload by how much he was home,” she said.

The couple has recently separated.

“There were many other issues. But when somebody is that dedicated to their work, and they’re gone a good 70 hours or more a week, and worried about the cases when they’re home, you can’t work on the other issues when you’re not there,” she said.

There are some perks to working as a public defender: the attorneys are entitled to state benefits, like state holidays, significant vacation time, and good health insurance. That’s something many private attorneys don’t have—and private attorneys, as well as prosecutors, often work long hours, too. But the pay rate for Missouri’s public defenders is among the lowest in the nation, and many graduate from law school $100,000 in debt.

In the public defender office in Ava—that’s in rural, south-central Missouri--the district attorney running the show is Linda McKinney.

“We did reach capacity, and I did give notice to our presiding judge that we are unavailable for any new cases for the remaining of December,” she said.

She’s one of three attorneys in the Ava office, and a good percentage of their cases are drug-related.

“It really becomes issues of coverage, and trying to be many places at once,” she says.

She knows firsthand that burnout is a big issue among Missouri’s public defenders. Although she’s been with the public defender office for eight years, she says she's tired of having no control over her caseload. So, she's leaving to go into private practice. Her last day is December 31st.

I’m Jennifer Moore.