Public defenders doing thankless task on the cheap
HEART: Money and fame don't drive public defenders.
BY PAMELA GRINER LEAVY KRISTA REINER
The current tab for a legal education can run $100,000 or higher.
Compare that to a public defender's starting salary of around $30,000 and the financial future for these men and women probably doesn't include BMW's and vacations in Europe.
Contrast that $30,000 to the starting salary range of $60,000 to $70,000 offered to law school graduates in the Tampa and St. Petersburg offices of Holland & Knight LLP - a firm that pays entry level lawyers a $6,000 starting bonus - and it's easy to see that it takes someone special to tackle public defender work.
But people do and Stephen Everhardt and others help train them.
Everhardt is a full-time law professor and director of the Public Defender Clinic at the Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport. A recent U.S. News and World Report graduate school survey showed that Stetson ranks second only to Temple University for law school trial advocacy training.
Assistant Public Defender Nora McClure, charged with mentoring and training new lawyers in the Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender's Office, works with Everhardt and prospective public defenders at the Stetson clinic.
The clinic - certified by the Florida Supreme Court - allows third-year law students to defend real clients in misdemeanor cases such as petty theft or driving on a suspended license.
Teamed with other students and supervised by McClure and other public defenders, students handle six to 10 cases per semester while still attending classes.
Everhardt said the clinic allows students to experience the full weight and responsibility of representing and defending someone accused of a crime.
Both McClure and Everhardt preach this key to success: Public defenders must believe in the justice system and equal protection under the law.
And they know public defenders do not always get credit they deserve.
"There's a common misconception that (public defenders are) interfering with the system or throwing up roadblocks," McClure said, emphasizing that a public defender's role is to uphold a client's Constitutional rights and assure a fair trial.
"We're not up there asking the jury to let a defendant walk out the door. Theoretically, if you have a fair trial, the truth will come out - even if your client is guilty."
Everhardt said people seeking praise might want to opt out of "PD" work.
"You don't get a lot of the kudos or accolades," said Everhardt.
"Nobody likes you. Every movie you watch (shows) that the case is messed up because a public defender messed up. People say, `How can you do that work? There must be something wrong with you.'"
An example: Hillsborough Public Defender Dee Ann Athan and the highly publicized murder trial of Valessa Robinson.
The court of public opinion has not been kind to the Hillsborough lawyer and her legal team since Robinson was convicted of third degree murder and not first degree murder. Athan has been taken to task for holding the young defendant's hand, for often referring to Robinson as "this child" and for appealing to jurors with a dramatic closing argument.
"Dee Ann was vigorous and zealous in her representation of the young lady," said Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Robert Dillinger, who commended Athan's work.
"In a public defender, you have someone dedicated to protecting the rights of all citizens. If they aren't protecting the rights of the poor and those that aren't popular, everybody's rights are threatened. Look at the last line of the Pledge of Allegiance, `... with liberty and justice for all.' It won't be for any of us if it's not for all."
So McClure makes sure that every case the students handle gets thorough and equal attention but said students do excellent work on their own.
As their coach, she personally goes over every case file and asks each student a series of detailed questions: Have all witnessed been interviewed? Has the student been to the scene and taken photographs, if necessary? Were the client's rights read to them at the scene?
Along with showing students how a defense is prepared, the clinic also
teaches students how to use computers to research cases, how to prepare opening statements and how to file motions.
About one-third of the public defender clinic participants end up working in the Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender's Office. Their real life experience in defending clients provides them knowledge beyond mock trials and classroom exercises.
But not every law student is cut out for public defender work, said McClure; whether it's because of financial constraints or lack of commitment.
"Public Defender Clinic students take it to heart once they realize they are not at a mock trial but are dealing with real people facing real jail time," McClure said.
Heart is what public defense is all about, she said.
PUBLIC: Students handle real cases while they take their course work and study the law.