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Legally Speaking


Issue: June, 2007
Author: Kerri M. Johnson & Robert E. Oldham

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The Good Fight

The Wyoming State Public Defender’s Office is a statewide agency dedicated to assisting the economically disadvantaged who wind up in the criminal justice system. While this article is written from the perspective of the Casper Public Defender’s Office, the day described below could take place anywhere in the state. Hopefully the article will provide some insight into what we do, and explain why, day after day, we continue to fight what we call the good fight.

The day begins with a sentencing in District Court. The client is a 22-year-old male, his victim a 13-year-old girl. A few weeks ago, in exchange for the State dropping three other counts, the client pled guilty to first degree sexual assault. In layman’s terms what the client confessed to is called rape. The sentencing will take place at a set of hearings in District Court called “eight-thirties.” Eight-thirties occur four times a week and they are always settings for felonies, so the stakes are high. These hearings are a mix of arraignments, change of pleas, probation revocations, short pre-trial motions, and usually a sentencing or two. There can be as few as three, to as many as eight or nine settings. Today there are six. Of the six, five are handled by public defenders from the Casper office; one by private counsel. This is the norm. On any given day if you checked, you would find that the Casper Public Defender’s Office handles around 85% of the criminal docket in Natrona County, the busiest docket in Wyoming.

At about 8:20 a.m. five of the six Casper Public Defenders head over to District Court. The sixth catches a break. Her first court appearance today is not until 9:00. After what seems like forever, the sentencing is finally called. The district attorney articulately describes the horror that took place. Just when it seems it cannot get any worse, it get worse—a lot worse. The judge listens to the 13-year-old victim in her own words. Head just clearing the podium, she looks more like nine or ten than 13. Between sobs she tells him she wants the client to die because she is afraid to go outside anymore. She also is afraid to sleep. Finally the sobs end and it is the Public Defender’s turn to speak. She argues with compassion and sincerity. She explains that her client was introduced to drugs at age ten and speaks of his deplorable childhood, which included daily, unprovoked beatings by his parents. She pleads with the judge to realize that there are two victims in the courtroom, the thirteen-year-old teenager and her client. However, the judge is not swayed. The client receives the maximum for what the judge rightfully describes as a brutal and senseless attack on a child. All of a sudden, it is over. The frail 22-year-old is taken into custody. In an effort to provide some comfort as he is being led away, the lawyer promises him she will be up to see him at the jail before they take him to Rawlins. The 22-year-old will be in his forties before he is paroled.

Already ten minutes late for her 9:30 a.m juvenile hearing, the attorney quickly heads upstairs to the juvenile hearing room. Fortunately she is in luck; the juvenile hearings are running behind. The hearing is uneventful and goes quickly. The only difficult part is having to once again see the look of sadness in the kid’s eyes when his mom says “I don’t care what you do with him. He’s not coming home.” Mom not only says it, she means it. For the second time in just a little over an hour her client is led away in handcuffs, his future to be determined at a later hearing. It will be a future away from home. Another kid tossed into a system that is already bursting at the seams.

It is now 9:50 a.m., and the Public Defender runs to the other courthouse for her three preliminary hearings which begin at 10:00. She is in luck again. Client number three is the only one which needs an actual hearing. Since client number one's police report reveals he has confessed 22 times (in writing), to 22 different law enforcement officers on 22 different kinds of recording devices, a hearing is useless, so the client waives.

Client number two provides a much needed bright spot to the day. In fact, client number two is a big part of what being a Public Defender is all about. Wins can come in many forms in the life of a Public Defender, and when the district attorney is persuaded to reduce a felony to a misdemeanor, it is a victory indeed. While this may not seem a monumental accomplishment to those outside the criminal justice system, the importance of this reduction to a misdemeanor cannot be overstated. Nor can its importance be measured immediately, because having a felony on your record destroys the future, not the present. It is when a person has managed to get his/her life together that the consequences of having a felony conviction come crashing down and smother dreams. The client is in college and he seems like a good kid—a kid that made a stupid mistake. The Public Defender feels pretty good about this one. Although the kid does not know it (or even appreciate it), this could be the most important day of his young life. Thanks to some quick thinking by his lawyer, the door to the future is still wide open. The third client's hearing goes well. It ends at about 11:10, and for the first time since she left that morning at 8:20, the Public Defender heads back to the office.

Thankfully there are no court appearances after lunch. However, the afternoon is full. After a visit to the jail with a client who is going to trial, there are three appointments with new clients. So it is jail from 1:30 to 2:15 and appointments at 2:30; 3:30 and 4:30. Trial prep will have to wait until tomorrow. The last client of the day leaves at about 5:05 p.m. The Public Defender wanders down the hall to the breakroom, or as it is affectionately called, the “brainroom.” She’s not surprised to see all of her colleagues still there brainstorming about things that happened today and planning strategy about what is going to happen tomorrow. At about a 5:45 p.m. the attorneys start heading home, except for two in trial. They have some research to get done and it will be about 8:00 or 9:00 before they can call it a day.

Everyone is dragging their heels a bit as they leave the office. But tomorrow is a new day and before it even officially begins at 8:00 a.m., the brainroom will be alive, filled with enthusiasm, laughter and plenty of good advice. Although they know the day ahead, just like every other day, will be filled with uphill battles, they also know they just might win a few along the way. Besides, maybe, just maybe, someone’s future will be saved. That is what fighting the good fight is all about, and that is what makes it all worthwhile.

Kerri M. Johnson has been with the Wyoming State Public Defender’s office since 1998. She is located in the Casper field office. She is the supervising attorney and has been involved in several high profile cases, including three death penalty cases—the latest being Floyd Grady’s trial in which he received life without parole. Kerri graduated from the University of Wyoming College of Law in 1996.

Robert E. Oldham is a Senior Assistant Public Defender in the Casper field office and has been with the Wyoming State Public Defender’s office since 2000. He graduated from the College of William and Mary Law School in 1997.

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