“Did he do it? Do you know?” “How do you defend people who are actually guilty?”
These are always the first questions I get when people learn that I am a public defender. Their focus is always on guilt and how wretched it must be to stand with people who are accused of such heinous crimes.
This Friday marks the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, which formally established the right to counsel for people accused of a crime in the United States. In honor of Public Defense Day, and in celebration of my colleagues, I want to share what it is actually like to be a public defender.
For 15 years, I have represented individuals charged with crimes who cannot afford a private lawyer. I choose this work, with intention, because I believe all people are entitled to excellent representation, and freedom should not depend on the amount of cash in one’s wallet. When I meet a client for the first time, I see the person, not the allegations. And each time I have been met, in return, with a pure sense of gratitude. It might be because someone is listening, someone is in their corner or that someone is going to bat for them. But no matter the reason, every single time, my client is grateful to meet me.
Then come the stories. The accounts I hear from my clients are always vastly different from what the police said on paper. In the rare circumstance where that is not the case, where it seems like from the beginning my client may have done something and the state may be able to prove it, there is always an unexplored reason — an unaddressed mental health issue, trauma, domestic violence, poverty or coercion. So I start investigating why, and how we can mitigate the offense.
I analyze whether their rights were violated, whether there is someone else responsible for this crime, whether there was a crime committed at all and whether there is more to this story than the officers noted. Police corruption begins with unlawful arrests and mistreated people. Public defenders and their clients are often the first ones to expose these problems.
Most importantly, I try to understand and engage with my clients as individuals, something no one else in the criminal justice system does. What has their life been like up to now? Where is their family? Who is missing them while they are in jail? Who are they in a hurry to go home to see? My job is to make sure everyone remembers that they, too, have loved ones and their whole lives ahead of them, that they are presumed innocent and that they belong outside of jail just as much as anyone else.
It is my job to hold the state accountable, to defend the Constitution and to remind everyone that my client was born free. If the state wants to take away someone’s freedom, then it better be completely fair. If they seek to hold another human being in a dank, filthy and scary jail, they better have to work for it. This is true even when an individual is guilty.
If my loved one was locked up and charged with a crime, I would want someone fighting for them every step of the way; I think we all would. People with means try to buy the best lawyer they can find to bring their loved one home. As a public defender, I am that lawyer for every single one of my clients. I may be their only resource, the only person they know in the system. I am, sometimes, everything they have in that one moment in time. I take that job very seriously; it is a high honor to hold.
So next time you meet a public defender, instead of asking how we can defend those people, ask us to tell you stories about what it’s like to free someone from jail, to fight so hard for the Constitution or to demand accountability and fair treatment for all — whether they are Black or white, rich or poor. Ask us how good that felt.
Deborah Levi (email@example.com) is the director of special litigation for the Maryland Office of the Public Defender in Baltimore City. She has also practiced as a public defender in Montgomery County, Maryland, as well as Salt Lake City, Utah. The views provided are her own.