Overworked Public Defenders Threaten Constitutional Rights

The constitution guarantees criminal defendants the right to an attorney if charged with a crime. But many who are arrested do not have the means to hire private attorneys. Thus, the government provides those in need with representation through public defenders—public attorney employees who are paid by the government.

A recent case demonstrates the problem with the system and how stretched resources are in most defenders’ offices.

Error by Public Defender

The case involves a wife who was convicted of murder after shooting her husband’s ex-wife. According to the prosecution, she then left the scene and went to an Amway conference in an attempt to set up an alibi. Both she and her husband were convicted.

Then the story takes a strange twist. The wife has now asked for a new trial, contending that she wanted to testify against her husband, but the public defender told her that she could not do so. She claims that had she been allowed to testify, she would have told the jury that she was actually drugged and thus not at the scene, and that her husband had snuck out of the house, dressed as woman, and shot his ex-wife.

Despite how the story sounds, in fact hair dye and a wig were found with the husband when he was tracked down after the shooting. Thus, there is some indication that the public defender telling the wife that she was not legally permitted to testify against her husband, prevented her from presenting a valid defense to the jury.

Fatigue and Huge Case Loads Burden Public Defenders

The error by the public defender is now being blamed on fatigue and an overwhelming case load. The case is being used as a demonstration nationally as to how overworked public defenders are and how that affects the rights of the underprivileged, who must rely on public defenders as their only means of defending themselves from criminal charges.

The public defender in this case was well regarded and very experienced. Thus, it is not always a lack of training or experience that jeopardizes the rights of criminal defendants.

Many public defenders are good attorneys and good public servants. But between the often nominal pay and the enormous need by the public for criminal legal representation, most public defender’s offices are severely overwhelmed. Sadly, because of public perception, funding to hire additional defenders is often not politically popular.

Certainly, there is no guarantee that even had she been able to testify, that the jury would have believed the wife in this case. Still, the right to testify on one’s behalf before a jury is a fundamental right and one that the wife says she was denied when the public defender advised her that the judge would not allow her to testify.

If you are charged with a crime, make sure you have the best representation possible, to make sure your constitutional rights are safeguarded. Contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today for a free consultation to discuss your rights.