Better late than never: Congrats, Public Defenders! Thanks to ALL defense attorneys!

March 18 arrived. No mention of the significance of the day. Not a word in newspapers. No special tributes or features on TV. Sadly, I almost let it slip by…it was flagged on the wrong date in my calendar. 

Well, it’s not too late. March 18 is National Public Defender Day. To add to the trivia, let me tell you about a little-known division within the Department of Justice. It’s called The Bureau of Justice Assistance, and its job is to provide leadership and assistance to local criminal justice programs. That is the office that chose to make March 18 a special day on the calendar. Public Defenders help those accused people who have no money for a lawyer.

In Ottawa County such a plan was approved in June of 2018. The new Public Defender Office became fully operational in 2019. 

I can still remember, as a young news reporter, questioning the integrity of those lawyers who chose to defend people on the wrong side of the law. How did they sleep at night, arguing on behalf of a person who was obviously guilty? 

Well, as I said, I was a young reporter. I had so much to learn! 

Decades later, I embarked on a personal journey to help a poor black man with no money, no friends and no support, who had already spent 20 years behind bars, all the while insisting that he was innocent. In the nine years that followed, I learned of many situations where people were wrongly convicted, where people had been inappropriately coerced into signing false confessions, where people of color routinely received stronger charges and longer sentences. Only then did I take on a new appreciation for that attorney willing to take up such an unpopular assignment, and at reduced fees. 

As a speaker at a state criminal defense association some years ago, I received a standing ovation when I referred to those lawyers as the “backbone of our justice system!” And I meant it! 

I’m sure you’re aware of this, but we all need this reminder on occasion. As provided in the Sixth Amendment: In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense. 

It's late, but here’s a salute to this vital group of unsung heroes, our Public Defenders, with sincere thanks for the balance of justice provided by all criminal defense attorneys.



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