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The Suburbanite
  • Sixth Amendment: Public defender has seen it all

  • Every weekday, all over Stark County, accused criminals enter pleas, stand trial, and are sentenced by an assortment of municipal and Common Pleas judges. Almost always, a lawyer is seated alongside them at the table to help navigate what can be a confusing process.

    It’s not a privilege; it’s a right.

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  • What you see inside the courtroom is only half the story.
    Every weekday, all over Stark County, accused criminals enter pleas, stand trial, and are sentenced by an assortment of municipal and Common Pleas judges. Almost always, a lawyer is seated alongside them at the table to help navigate what can be a confusing process.
    Some pay for counsel. Those who can’t afford it are appointed a public defender.
    It’s not a privilege; it’s a right. It’s guaranteed to all of us in the Sixth Amendment of the Bill of Rights, which concludes with these words: “And to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.” Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black referred to the right to defense counsel as an “obvious truth,” in its landmark Gideon v. Wainwright decision from 1963.
    Most defense work, though, is done outside the courtroom.
    It’s interviewing clients and witnesses to determine how accurate law enforcement and prosecutors were in putting the case together. It’s sitting in front of a computer, reading case law and filing written motions. It’s pre-trials, often held privately inside the judge’s chambers.
    “The legal dramas on TV are so unrealistic,” said Barry Wakser, a lawyer in the Stark County Public Defender office, who represents anywhere from 15 to 30 clients at a given time.
    He’s 47 years old and has worked in the office for two decades. He’s never seriously considered going into a possibly more lucrative private practice. He doesn’t want to worry about paying assistants, covering rent and utilities, working on budgets, or handling cases like divorces or civil fights between neighbors.
    “I like practicing law, not running a business,” said Wakser, who’s paid with tax dollars.
    So, he has stayed put.
    And every minute on the clock, he is the Sixth Amendment in action.
    FIGHTING THE FIGHT
    On a recent Wednesday, Wakser represented 18 separate clients in various stages of the criminal justice system, before Common Pleas Judge Lee Sinclair. Wakser’s clients were accused of everything from drunken driving to shooting someone, and breaking the leg of a baby.
    Hours before the cases went “on the record” in the courtroom, Wakser, Assistant Prosecutor Lewis D. Guarnieri and the judge sat at a table inside Sinclair’s office to review each of the 18 cases.
    Sometimes, prosecutor and defense counsel come to a plea-bargain agreement, if that’s what the client wants.
    Typically, a defendant gets a lesser sentence than he or she could face if convicted at trial.
    Sometimes, an agreement isn’t easy.
    One of Wakser’s clients was charged with trafficking in marijuana.
    “It’s 1.91 grams!” Wakser proclaimed.
    Page 2 of 3 - About as much as a packet of sugar.
    “He has priors,” Guarnieri chimed in.
    “He’s making gospel music now,” Wakser countered.
    Another client faced eight years in prison for endangering children. He’s accused of breaking the leg of a baby. Wakser asked the judge for permission to hire an expert from California, who may refute testimony expected at trial by a physician at Akron Children’s Hospital.
    The final bill could be $4,700.
    Sinclair approved $700 for an initial consultation for now.
    Another client was accused of shooting someone. A plea agreement was in the works. She was headed to prison for felonious assault with a gun specification, which ensured six to eight years behind bars.
    “Any chance you’d drop the gun spec?” Wakser asked.
    “No, Barry, I’ve got the gun on video,” Guarnieri said.
    On behalf of two other clients, Wakser informed Guarnieri he’d be filing motions to suppress evidence, because he believed the police obtained it by skirting the rights of the defendant.
    One case involved a search of a vehicle without the defendant’s permission, Wakser said. The other was a drug arrest outside an Alliance store for buying pseudoephedrine. Wakser called it a “bad arrest.” It wasn’t until after the arrest, he said, that his client admitted trading it for meth.
    THE SYSTEM
    Ohio’s indigent defense system varies across its 88 counties, with each county board of commissioners choosing which system. It includes county public defenders, such as in Stark, as well as contracts with nonprofit corporations, court-appointed counsel, and the Ohio Public Defender. In fiscal year 2012, the Ohio county public defenders handled more than 258,827 cases.
    Wakser has heard every public-defender joke known to man. He knows there’s a stigma that comes with the job. That he’s an “amateur.” That he’s not smart enough or good enough for private practice. Some clients have threatened to spit on him. Others have sent “thank-you” cards.
    “If you were going to have brain surgery, wouldn’t you want a brain surgeon?” said Stark County Public Defender Tammi Johnson. “We went to the same law schools. We passed the same bar exams. And we do criminal defense all the time. It’s all we do, so we know a thing or two.”
    Her office includes four investigators and 19 lawyers, who are paid between $35,000 and $52,000 a year.
    There’s little debate public defenders are overworked and underpaid, not to mention wanting for resources, because many, as in Ohio, are paid for with local tax dollars. Countless studies back that up. Even U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has referred to it as a “crisis in indigent defense.”
    Holder has lobbied for more funding, more oversight and more independence for public defender systems, such as Ohio’s.
    Page 3 of 3 - “Overall, the South is actually ahead of many parts of the country,” said David Carroll, executive director of the nonprofit Sixth Amendment Center, a defense advocacy group in Boston. “Its overreliance on county funding makes Rust Belt states some of the worst of the worst.”
    Carroll said framers of the Bill of Rights would be appalled. He said the Bill of Rights is supposed to protect against big-government tyranny. He said the public defense system is riddled with problems, starting with the fact that it’s a government-managed and -run program.
    “We’ve seen how the government runs things,” Carroll said. “Are we sure that’s who we want running this? Our criminal justice system ... in many cases has become nothing more than a conveyor belt from the courtroom to jail.”

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