Today, we begin our five-part series, “Justice for All: The Missouri Public Defender System in Crisis.” In this segment, KSMU’s Jennifer Moore looks at why the system has been shutting its doors, and how one rural Ozarks man is caught in the middle of it all.
Behind layer after layer of steel and concrete, 22-year-old Jared Blacksher has been sitting for five months in the Christian County jail without an attorney.
He can’t afford one—his income falls below the federal poverty line. But according to the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution, he still has the right to counsel—and the US Supreme Court, in its landmark Gideon v. Wainwright decision, ruled that the state is obligated to provide him with that counsel.
At the Christian County jail, I'm led to a room to meet Blacksher.
According to his rap sheet, this soft-spoken young man is no angel.
He admits he’s guilty of the burglary and forgery charges against him.
"With the forgery, I stole a check and cashed it. And then, the burglary, I broke into a house twice and stole prescription pills," he says.
Last year he stole a safe, and he’s had a couple of other minor run-ins with the law, too. He says he committed the crimes to feed his addiction to prescription medicine, which he developed as a teenager at a party.
“Yeah, it wasn’t that long after I tried it that I started injecting. Then it got way worse after that,” he said.
Blacksher says he was clean for a month before he turned himself in. That was in July. From jail, he filled out an application for a public defender. Public defenders are the state-funded lawyers who represent indigent people facing potential jail time for criminal charges.
But as he submitted his application, Blacksher had no idea that the Springfield public defender office, which oversees Greene, Christian and Taney counties, had just shut its doors to new clients on July 22 for the first time ever. Administrators said the office had reached the maximum number of cases it could ethically handle.
But the office continued to receive new applications. And the very first application it received during that time was Jared Blacksher’s, putting him in a unique, and some would say unfortunate, predicament.
Not only would his case be refused in July; even after the office opened back up in August, and every month since, Blacksher’s case has been frozen in a high-stakes tug-of-war between the Missouri Public Defender Commission and judges who insist on appointing a public defender, whether their offices are closed or not.
In early September, Blacksher was told to get ready for his day in court.
Blacksher: "I was scheduled for my preliminary hearing. And I got pulled up there and it turned out to be this hearing for the public defenders arguing with Judge Waters on why they shouldn’t have to take my case. And that turned out to be like a six-hour court day, that day. Then my next court date turned out to be my preliminary hearing. And the public defenders told me they were going to represent me anyways, which they decided not to, I guess.”
Moore: "How much do you know about why the state has not appointed an attorney for you?"
Blacksher: "Well, what I do know is supposedly they’re overworked and underfinanced, the public defenders. And that’s about all I know about it."
"The way the caseload rule is written—we accept cases at the beginning of each month, until we reach capacity, and then we close until only the end of the month. And we start over again each month," says Rod Hackathorn, the supervising attorney at the Springfield public defender office.
He says the Public Defender Commission has a rule that allows offices to close when their caseloads get too high. His office has closed every month since July—and each month, it gets earlier and earlier.
He says at times, the 20 lawyers in his office have tried to juggle as many as 200 open cases each, and that they desperately need more resources from the state.
So when the Christian County judge overruled their rule, and told them they had to appoint Blacksher a lawyer, the Public Defender Commission fought back. It issued a “writ of prohibition,” which works a bit like an appeal.
That writ sailed on up to state’s high court. The Supreme Court has appointed Springfield Judge Miles Sweeney as a “special master” in the case—he’ll submit his findings on how the Public Defender Commission arrived at its caseload numbers.
Again, Rod Hackathorn.
Hackathorn: "And if the Supreme Court backs us up on that, and says we do have authority, then that should do away with this ‘over-ruling our rule.’ And that would then leave the court with only one of the other two options once we refuse the case: either basically, have the person wait until the next month when we’re available, or assigning private counsel."
Moore: "Does either of those sound like a long-term solution to you?"
Hackathorn: "No, especially the waiting, no. Because that will really just create a snowball effect. If they’re just having potential clients wait until the beginning of the next month. Well, we’re just going to be closing sooner, and sooner, and sooner each month until eventually we’ll have a line out the door at the first of each month, and we’re closed by the end of the day."
Moore: "Which it sounds like is already beginning to happen."
"It’s unfortunate he’s being held hostage," says Darrell Moore, who is the Treasurer of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, and the Greene County Prosecutor. He says he’s skeptical about what the focus of this Public Defender Commission is.
"In the old days, I believe the public defenders would have still made sure he had representation while they were appealing the process. And that is what I do not understand," Moore said.
“I know people look at our turning away cases and say, ‘Yes, we know you’re overloaded. But how could you do that? These people need lawyers and there’s a Constitutional right to a lawyer and you’re denying them that,'" says Cat Kelly, the deputy director of the Missouri State Public Defender.
“What I think it’s important for people to understand is, they were already being denied that. Having a body stand beside you in a courtroom is not providing you with Constitutional assistance of counsel,” Kelly said.
Missouri ranks second to last in the nation per capita when it comes to funding for its public defender system—that’s according to a report by Robert Spangenberg, who was commissioned by the Missouri Bar Association to look into the matter.
Last November, in a speech at the Brennan Legacy Awards Dinner in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder specifically called out Missouri’s indigent defense system as an example of where justice is not being served, due to high caseloads.
During the past two decades, the number of people sentenced for felonies in Missouri has nearly tripled.
According to Spangenberg’s report, between 2001 and 2008, the public defender system caseload increased by as many as 12,000 cases—yet it received no additional attorneys during that time, and not much of an increase in funding, either.
They did get 12 new attorneys last year—that’s statewide. But they say they still need 164 more.
Many other offices are closing their doors, too. So, all across the state, many impoverished men and women are having to wait until the next month for an attorney—and some of them are in jail.
The judges are all handing the cases differently. They can appoint a public defender anyway, appoint a private attorney for no pay, reduce the sentence to a fine, or dismiss the case altogether. Cat Kelly says none of those options is ideal.
[Sound: Jail cell door opening]
As for Jared Blacksher, most people would call him “unlucky.” He’s calling it “karma.”
People serving time for crimes similar to his in Missouri typically spend about 120 days in prison. He’s already been in jail for longer than that.
Blacksher says he’s determined to go through drug rehab, stay clean, and get his GED.
But he has no idea when the Supreme Court will make its decision.
Meanwhile, he’ll likely have Christmas Day and New Year’s to sit in jail and wonder about it.
I’m Jennifer Moore.
ANCHOR TAG:Join us Tuesday morning at the same time--7:30 a.m.--when we’ll look at the “caseload math” that went into determining how many cases a public defender can ethically handle—and why some people don’t agree with it.
Download the 2009 Assessment of the Missouri State Public Defender System ("The Spangenberg Report")