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Justice for All: The Future of Missouri's Public Defender System

In our final segment of our five-part series “Justice for All: Missouri’s Public Defender System in Crisis,” KSMU’s Jennifer Moore looks at the options for the system’s future.

Early next year, the Supreme Court of Missouri is expected to rule on whether public defenders can continue closing their doors to new clients when their caseloads get too high. But even if the Court says they can, the question of how to provide criminal defense attorneys to Missouri’s poor will remain unanswered.

Should the court appoint private bar attorneys? University of Missouri law professor Rodney Uphoff says "perhaps."

"I think there should always be private bar involvement in any public defender program—But bringing in private lawyers is going to cost even more," Uphoff says.

One option is for private attorneys to take on the minor cases pro bono.

But ultimately, Uphoff says reorganizing won’t fix it—the system needs more attorneys, and more investigators, which means, more money.

An in-depth 2009 field study called “The Spangenberg Report” estimates it would cost $25 million in additional funding to bring Missouri’s public defender system up to par. And in a tight budget year, that’s unlikely.

"Maybe we need to take a look at what we’re spending lawyers on," says Cat Kelly, the deputy director of the Missouri State Public Defender. She says a recent case in the Ozarks involved a man going trial because he used illegal fishing bait.

"He was standing on the wrong side of a sign using bacon to fish...where on the other side of the sign, you weren’t allowed to use that. And we’re having a trial in the criminal court system over that. And the state of Missouri is paying for lawyers for that," she said.

But changing that possible sentence, she said, would require a change in the law—because the way the current law is written, any indigent person facing potential jail time, even for walking a dog in a state park without a leash—qualifies for a public defender.

In 2009, a bill sponsored by Jack Goodman unanimously passed in the Senate and by a strong majority in the House. It clarified that the Public Defender Commission could stop taking new clients amidst high caseloads.

But on July 13, 2009, Governor Jay Nixon’s pen came down in a veto of the bill. At a recent press conference in Springfield, I asked the governor why he vetoed it, and how he was going to fix the problems within the public defender system. He began by saying that closing down offices, as that bill would have supported, is not the ultimate solution.

Nixon: “And we had quite an outpouring of opposition to that from prosecutors and judges and others, who just felt like that wasn’t the best way to do the system. But I’ll look forward with the new legislature this year. If we can get a better way to handle the challenge, we’ll certainly do it.”Moore: “Any idea of what form that might take?”Nixon: “Well, it’s—I don’t think it’s going to be mandatory caseloads. I just think that not every case is the same, and not every lawyer is the same, and what not. I do think we can work to assist them on some of the things that support defense—whether it’s crime lab assistance, expert assistance, things of that nature. But I just don’t think this is the budget year in which we’re going to see a massive expansion of more public defenders in the state of Missouri.”

[Sound: Footsteps, car passing by, clock chiming]

Reporter standup: “Right now, I’m on High Street in downtown Jefferson City. I’m standing in the shadow of a stately, red brick building with tall, elaborate windows and strong pillars. This is the home of the Supreme Court of Missouri, and it’s where an important piece of the public defender’s crisis is soon to be decided.

Engraved along the top of the building is the Latin phrase ‘Jus dicere non dare,’ which means ‘To declare law, not to make law.’ That’s a phrase used to point out the limits of the courts.

Many of those on the inside say ultimately, the solution may have to come from another building--and that is the magnificent building just to my left—the Missouri state capitol, which of course, would mean new legislation.

And engraved above its enormous columns is the Missouri state motto: ‘Salus populi suprema lex esto,’ which means, essentially, ‘Let the welfare of the people be the supreme law.’

And that’s really the crux of this whole debate: is the current law really in the best interest of all Missourians’ welfare?”

[Sound: footsteps]

KSMU reached out to several lawmakers for comment on this issue. Calls to the incoming Senate President Pro Tem, Rob Mayer, and the incoming chair of the House budget committee, Ryan Silvey, were not returned, and we were unable to connect with Senator Jack Goodman for an interview.

Rodney Uphoff says he believes innocent people across the country are pleading guilty every day, often because their overwhelmed public defenders come to them and say something along these lines:

"‘Well, we can to go trial, but I really haven’t had a chance to get all the witnesses investigated, and the evidence looks pretty strong against you. And even though you tell me you're innoncent, and I believe you're innocent, you’re in a really difficult predicament, because I may not be able to convince the jury you’re innocent in light of this other evidence.'”

So, he says, they plead guilty rather than running the risk of facing a much higher sentence if they lose at trial.

President Harry Truman, a Missouri native, is quoted as having said “A society will be judged by how it treats its weakest members.”

[Sound: Jail doors opening, echo of keys]

Blacksher: "I’m sitting here on dead time. I should have been sentenced on September 3rd..."

Remember Jared Blacksher? He’s the young man still waiting in jail while the state of Missouri figures out how to appoint him an attorney.

Blacksher says he neither wants nor deserves a “pity party”—but he does want his day in court so he can get on with his life. And despite that he’s, in his words, a "poor man from the sticks,” that’s still his right under the supreme law of the land.

In this case, he’s admitted he’s guilty—but the person in his spot could just as easily have been innocent…we just wouldn’t have any way of knowing that.

I’m Jennifer Moore.