Jamila L. Montaque EJF Report
The 2009 EJF Fellows
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EJF: Summer Internship at the DeKalb County Public Defender’s Office
During the summer, I had the opportunity to intern at the Stone Mountain Judicial District Public Defender’s Office in Decatur, GA. I was assigned to the Superior Court, where I had the pleasure of working with people of varying levels of experience in the field of criminal law: one of my supervising attorneys has been a criminal defense lawyer for nearly twenty years, the other supervising attorney had just been promoted to Superior Court from State Court, and the judge had only been on the bench for about six months. In a sense, we were all learning together about the most efficient way to dispose of cases while still making sure we reached fair results.
As an intern, I started out trying to feel my way around the office to get an idea of how the attorneys worked. The first few weeks, I did mostly office and administrative tasks. I did phone interviews with clients, copied discovery packets, and researched cases and drug rehab programs. After I was sworn in under the Third Year Practice Act, I really started getting involved in courtroom proceedings and I was left in charge of several clients. The first courtroom proceeding I handled was a preliminary hearing, which ended in the dismissal of the charges. I also did several pre-trial pleas, arraignments, bond reductions, and probation revocation hearings. During my eight weeks at the office, I sat through two trials also. I helped with the first trial by putting together a PowerPoint presentation for the closing argument. For the second trial, I asked some of the voir dire questions, and I also cross-examined a witness.
Although I was already aware about the desperate need for public defenders and other public interest lawyers before I started my internship, my time at the DeKalb office reinforced my desire to work in this field. Every time I went to the courtroom, I was disappointed to see that nearly every defendant was a young, African-American male. Most of our clients had been in previous trouble with the law and it seemed like a vicious circle of poverty and jail. The attorneys at the Public Defender’s office were dedicated to their jobs and communicated often with their clients, but their cases loads were crushing. Each attorney had anywhere from twenty to thirty clients at once, and they were expected to keep up with all of them with limited resources.
Throughout the course of my internship, I traveled from Acworth to Decatur every day. The journey was two hours roundtrip, and sometimes it lasted longer than that because of the heavy traffic in Atlanta. Because of the EJF Fellowship, I was able to pay for all the gas that I needed to get from home to work. I had an invaluable experience for those eight weeks because I received some practical knowledge about the work of criminal defense attorneys and public defenders, and I also made some great connections. The fellowship from the Equal Justice Foundation helped me tremendously and I had a wonderful experience at the office.