I’ve written many times about the pathetic excuse for a public defender system we have in this country, one in which justice is not even hypothetically possible, much less real on a practical level. The New Jersey Supreme Court has now said that as long as there is a warm-blooded person standing at the attorney’s table, that’s enough for justice to be done.
In State v. Terrence Miller, four justices of the state supreme court—over a lone dissent—affirmed the conviction of a man indicted on drug charges who met his lawyer for the first time for a few minutes in a stairwell at the courthouse on the morning of trial. The lawyer had not tried a criminal case in seven years and had been appointed to Miller’s case only four days before trial. He never spoke to any witnesses, or to Miller’s former attorney, or to investigators in the public defender’s office. He didn’t know what his client would say on the witness stand.
Twice, the defense attorney asked the trial judge for a continuance so that he could adequately prepare for trial. Twice, the trial judge refused the request even though there were other cases he could have tried during that time. He had his docket schedule to worry about, the judge said, and the case was not complex. The judge was frustrated, court records revealed, with the “higher ups” in the public defenders office. He thought they were trying to play him. Lost in the middle of this turf war was Miller. He bore the brunt of the judge’s frustration.
To their credit, prosecutors did not oppose the adjournment, but of course they did not complain when it was denied by the judge. The trial proceeded. Miller never had a chance to present his best defense, whatever it was, and was quickly convicted. All of this, the state supreme court declared, satisfied the defendant’s constitutional right to counsel first expressed in Gideon v. Wainwright. Miller, the court said, got a fair trial.
A few years ago I had the opportunity to shadow a public defender for a day and this is exactly how it goes in most states. The PD doesn’t meet his client until immediately before the arraignment, and sometimes not until the trial itself (if they’re lucky enough to get one; more than 90% of all charges result in plea bargains now). They know nothing about the case or the defendant, have no resources or time to do any investigation and couldn’t possibly put on a competent defense no matter how much they might want to. That a society that claims to believe in justice tolerates such a system is beyond appalling.
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