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My time at the Federal Defender Program showed me several faces of public defense. The most moving face is the initial meeting of the client in jail. Because I accompanied the Federal Defenders to meet their clients for the first time in lock-ups, I shared in one of the truths of public defense – as a public defender, you are meeting your client on what is likely the worst day of their life. Law students devote three years of their lives to learning the lingo and procedures of a legal system which is foreign to most non-lawyers. Clients arrested and sitting in lock-up enter this system with little understanding or explanation. In that first meeting, the public defender can bring some direction to a mixed-up world by introducing themselves as an advocate and giving a rational list of next steps.
During the summer, I received a behind-the-scenes tour of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals from a member of the court. I toured a jail which housed federal inmates from jail personnel. The tour of the jail helped me understand the conditions in which our clients lived. I wrote motion briefs which were submitted to the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia and the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. The best hands-on experience was the ability to sit at counsel table “second chair” with the attorney and the client. When the federal defender moved to the podium to present her argument, I remained with the client, listening to whispered questions and responding with quiet explanations of the proceedings. The most memorable experience was sitting second chair during a trial. I sat with the attorney and the client throughout the trial. I interviewed witnesses and talked with worried family members. My attorney valued my input, asking what I would do and taking my limited advice.
Public defense is a world of small victories. A shorter sentence. A dropped charge. I sat with the attorney as she argued for a shorter sentence in an illegal re-entry case. The federal defender explained to the judge that the client had a wife and U.S. citizen children here, that one of those children had Down syndrome, that the other child was ill and called the client begging for him to come, that the client had only come to aid and support his sick children. These facts did not change the elements of the offense or the client’s guilt, but they did lead to sentence less than the prescribed guidelines. There, I learned that placing clients’ actions in the contexts of their lives can put a human face of their offenses and lead to better outcomes.
During my summer, I was able to help the attorneys prepare for oral arguments in front of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals on death penalty cases. Digging through the transcripts, I saw cases in which trial attorneys seem to apologize to the jury for representing their clients and told the jury that the defense should present mitigation evidence but would not. These cases stood as a reminder of the need for capable public defenders.