Criminal Justice

Here's a Bad Idea…

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…electing public defenders.

Imagine the perverse, overly law-and-order sentiment that pervades the elections of judges and prosecutors now applied to the selection of who will represent the indigent accused.

Witness Matt Shirk, a Republican recently elected public defender in Jacksonville, Florida. Shirk, who was backed by the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, has never defended a homicide case. His campaign promises included a vow not to oppose funding cuts to the office he was running for, and a promise to squeeze as much money as possible out of indigent defendants, including a proposal for hte postponed billing of acquitted defendants who might later be able to find some employment.

Shirk also promised during the campaign not to make drastic changes to the staff of the public defender office. But last week, he announced he'd be firing ten senior-level attorneys and three administrators.

As it turns out, several of the fired attorneys Shirk fired worked on the high-profile case of Brenton Butler, a 16-year-old wrongly accused of the robbery and murder of an elderly tourist. The Butler case was a huge embarrassment for Jacksonville's sheriff's department. Trial testimony suggested Butler's confession had been beaten out of him by detectives with the department. Butler's case eventually became the subject of the Oscar-winning HBO documentary Murder on a Sunday Morning. The sheriff's department apologized to Butler, and reopened its investigation into the murder.

You'd think the kind of attorneys who could expose that kind of injustice (and, of course, expose the fact that the tourist's real killer was still on the loose) would be exactly the sort of people a public defender would want on his staff.

Pat McGuiness, one of the fired public defenders who worked on the Butler case, says Shirk hasn't even had the time to interview or review the personnel files of the people he fired. McGuiness alleges that Shirk's axing of some of the office's most skilled and experienced attorneys was a favor, in exchange for the police support he received during the campaign.

Shirk has yet to respond to those allegations, or explain his rationale for the firings.

(Hat tip to Bobby G. Frederick)