Matthew Yglesias, some guy who writes at Slate, writes this piece asking “What if George Zimmerman had a public defender?”
Obviously the natural response to that question would be: nothing different, but you know it’s a loaded question and you know what he’s getting at: banging the drum of the tired trope of the overworked, underfunded public defender.
Well, not exactly. Because he throws this in there:
What if Zimmerman, like most criminal defendants in the United States, was relying on a public defender with little emotional or financial investment in winning the case and no resources with which to pursue a robust defense even if he’d been inclined to do so. Wouldn’t that defender have told Zimmerman that the smart way to avoid a second-degree murder sentence was to plead guilty to manslaughter and work out terms of incarceration that would be less onerous than what he’d end up with if he fought and lost. And of course the last thing any sensible person wants to do is go to trial with his entire life on the line in a situation where his own attorney has just plainly said he’s not enthusiastic about running the case.
So, yes, Yglesias’ comments are moronic, but you don’t need to follow in his footsteps and become one.
There are so many errors with his premise: for example, a public defender has the same “financial incentive” that Mark O’Mara and Don “Knock, knock” West had: none. They both got paid up front – contigency fee agreements are illegal in criminal cases – you can’t get paid only if your client wins at trial. So they got paid. Just like any public defender would’ve been paid.
Emotional investment? You think public defenders like losing? You think we, who dedicate our lives to the defense of the poor, do so for money? Fame? Accolades? How does that even pass the basic logic test, because we’ve already established that everyone hates us and the clients we represent. We’re underfunded, underpaid and reviled. So, I’m doing this because…?
I bet if the State had made an offer to Zimmerman, O’Mara and West would’ve had to convey that to Zimmerman. Maybe they would’ve looked at the case and said “Hey, GZ, man, you really should think about pleading.” Or they would’ve said “Hey, you should take this to trial”.
Just like any other attorney would’ve said.
The logic is further missing in this argument because it presupposes that any privately hired lawyer in the world is per se and necessarily better than a public defender.
So it doesn’t matter if the private attorney has no experience in criminal law but charges exorbitant sums, he or she is, by the very nature of their existence, automatically better than a public defender.
That is what we call a damn fool argument. Because Zimmerman – who was poor and relied on donations to fund his defense – could’ve hired two morons like Yglesias to represent him. And then he’d have lost. And then? Then I don’t know because at this point I’ve officially thought about this more than Yglesias did before hitting publish. There are good attorneys and bad attorneys and they can be found everywhere.
Yglesias later apologized, to be fair, and said that his article was more about the lack of funding for public defenders. You read it and you decide, because if that’s what his article really was about, then he’d have spent a significant portion of it (read: all) focusing on the ways in which the federal government’s sequester is destroying the federal public defender’s office and the Constitutional right to counsel.
“All employees, from the receptionist all the way up to me, have lost almost three weeks of pay,” he said. The office has also seen its staff size shrink by about 10 percent because of early retirements and layoffs, Nachmanoff said. Nationwide, federal public defender offices currently face between 15 and 20 furlough days and have had to consider declining work from indigent clients. Nachmanoff said his office has had to turn down death-penalty cases, international fraud cases and other resource-intensive cases because of the cuts. “And that’s just going to get worse in the year to come,” he said.
Aside from the financial hardships, the dangers of further unbalancing an already uneven playing field cannot be overstated. The DOJ and their AUSAs have suffered no such corresponding financial hardships. They haven’t had to lay off workers and cut budgets for training and experts. There are real people out there, whose lives are on the line, who will not get Constitutionally adequate defense because of the sequester. [See also this detailed and moving letter by the Federal Defender of Connecticut, which highlights the same problems.][Prior posts on pd systems here.]
His alleged point that there isn’t adequate funding is a valid one, but there’s more that he could have spent his time on: how the Government has all the power; how the purse strings are controlled by ‘tough on crime’ types, how judges and prosecutors are two big parts of the criminal justice system and we are but bit players. The “blame” doesn’t lie with us; most public defenders, as far as I know, are doing the best they can with the resources available to them.
If George Zimmerman had a public defender and lost because of the lack of resources available to him and his lawyers, then a greater injustice would’ve been done.
But that’s not worth writing about.