Defending the System

The American criminal justice system guarantees a defense for all; dedicated professionals make it happen

John Adams, Kootenai County's chief public defender, comes across as a tough, quick-thinking, fast-talking character out of a TV crime series. As it turns out, Adams is not acting; he's the genuine article. He's willing to fight for a fair trial for his clients along with a fair deal for his staff.

Adams has practiced in the field of criminal justice since his graduation from the University of Arizona's law school in 1983. In 1996 he was hired to be a public defender in Coeur d'Alene; he has now been chief public defender for Kootenai County for more than 18 years.

Asked why he chose criminal defense for a career, Adams responded that when he was young he read novels about being a lawyer: "It made me think that being a lawyer was a noble goal. And helping people most in need would be a noble profession."

The wall behind Adams' desk is covered with diplomas, certificates and awards. Most recently, the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho added its annual Civil Rights Service Award to the collection. In the awards ceremony, the Idaho ACLU executive director said, "Despite a broken public defender system in the state, John has been able to establish what is arguably the best public defense system possible."

I consider Adams and his stable of 15 lawyers to be among our county's unsung heroes. In and out of court, they represent individuals charged with crimes or misdemeanors who cannot afford to hire a private lawyer.

Their clients are the neediest because they can't afford a private attorney, and because, according to Adams, "They have the bulwark of the government against them." The charges against the accused individuals are brought by prosecuting attorneys, whose accusations are backed by sheriffs' troopers or city or state police. The clients' notoriety may be fanned by radio, TV and newspapers. The accused individuals may be damned and pre-convicted by public opinion. Guilty or not guilty, the object of all the attention is in a very powerless position.

In addition to being too poor to hire a lawyer, the accused individual may be uneducated, mentally or emotionally disturbed, friendless and alone.

Don't get me wrong. These public defenders are not bleeding-heart liberals. They don't condone stealing, wife-beating, murder or any of the crimes that someone charged before the court may face. The public defenders are there to assure that the constitutional right to a fair trial is available to everyone, regardless of financial status.

Unfortunately, the lawyers on the county legal defense team are carrying workloads far heavier than American Bar Association standards recommend. Several are pushing 200 percent of the allowable hours. Even the smartest lawyers cannot sustain such a load without making errors or letting some cases slip.

Former Prosecuting Attorney Bill Douglas cautions against cutting corners when it comes to the legal defense budget. "It is absolutely essential for every person accused of a crime to have the best representation possible," Douglas told me. "It's in the best interest of the county and its taxpayers to protect legitimate convictions from costly, time-consuming appeals. And it's in the best interest of justice as well," Douglas concluded.

The U.S. Supreme Court held in the landmark 1963 Gideon v. Wainwright decision that the Sixth Amendment of the Bill of Rights requires government, be it federal, county, city or state, to provide legal counsel for defendants charged with crimes if they cannot afford to hire a private attorney. National figures show that close to 85 to 95 percent of persons charged with offenses cannot afford a private attorney.

Idaho is not alone in overworking and underpaying its public defense teams. It's another dirty little secret that, across the country, jurisdictions don't provide adequate resources to assure fair representation for all the indigents accused of big crimes or lesser misdemeanors.

In the past few years, the well-publicized Innocence Project has shined a bright light on the tragic record of judges and juries who have sent wrongfully convicted people to prison. With the use of DNA, the diligent young advocates of the Innocence Project have now cleared 325 innocent victims, all of whom have spent a significant chunk of their lives behind bars.

Inadequate legal representation is one of the major causes leading to wrongful convictions. Any jurisdiction that fails to live up to the Gideon requirement of competent legal representation for the indigent has the threat of a lawsuit hanging like a cloud over its future.

Kootenai County is fortunate to have the strong leadership of John Adams in the public defender's office, and a troop of good lawyers to soldier with him on the Gideon Trail.

Justice, when appropriately blind, can act like the lady she is. ♦

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