TRLA Fills Longtime Need for Public Defenders

Zoom in and click on the orange counties on the map above to explore public defender numbers from 2018.

Launched with a handful of attorneys and the momentum of TRLA founding Executive Director David Hall’s vision, TRLA’s Regional Public Defender Program has altered the landscape for low-income people who can’t afford criminal defense. In southwestern Texas, where public defender offices did not exist before the program was founded, TRLA now provides criminal defense for indigent people in 10 counties.

“In the counties where we’re serving, the percentage of indigent criminal defendants who actually got a court-appointed attorney was miniscule,” said Abner Burnett, director of TRLA’s Regional Public Defender Program. “Now virtually everyone who asks for and qualifies for an attorney gets one.”

In 2018, TRLA’s Regional Public Defender program opened nearly 2,500 cases in the 10 counties, including nearly 1,400 misdemeanors, more than 1,000 non-capital felonies, two capital felonies, and 75 cases involving juveniles. Cases handled recently and in previous years have included those with broad influence on defendants’ rights throughout Texas.

In March, for example, TRLA’s client won a ruling that solidified Fourth Amendment privacy protections for all Texans. The state’s conservative Court of Criminal Appeals upheld lower court rulings in favor of the client, whose blood was seized and analyzed by law enforcement without his consent. The nine-member court ruled unanimously to grant his motion to suppress his blood test results as evidence, which was filed by the Bee County Regional Public Defender office.

“Our client’s right to privacy was clearly violated by law enforcement,” said TRLA’s Michelle Ochoa, who represented the client. “The Court of Criminal Appeals – the highest court in Texas for criminal matters – now agrees with that judgment. That’s an important win not only for our client but for all Texans.”

In a measure of the program’s success, Ochoa and Jessica Canter in 2017 received the Texas Gideon Recognition Award on behalf of TRLA’s Bee Country Regional Public Defender office. The award is given by the Texas Indigent Defense Commission (TIDC) for programs that “strive to meet a high standard of indigent defense.”

 “Our goal is not just to fill a gap by providing public defense for low-income people who before had no access or extremely limited access to attorneys,” Burnett said. “We’re also improving the quality of the defense – providing low-income criminal defendants with strong, inventive, defense from dedicated lawyers.”

He pointed to a case in which TRLA won acquittal for a woman who  disconnected her diabetic daughter from an insulin delivery device. Her daughter died, and the woman was charged with manslaughter. Employing the rarely successful temporary insanity plea, TRLA nonetheless won acquittal. The woman was treated at a psychiatric hospital rather than imprisoned.

TRLA’s public defender program was started after the passage of the Fair Defense Act in 2001. The act for the first time required all criminal courts to adopt specific procedures for timely appointment of attorneys to criminal defendants who are indigent, generally defined as living at 125 percent of the federal poverty level. The act addressed and successfully reduced the substantial corruption and cronyism that had accompanied the previously traditional method of appointment of private attorneys to indigents charged with crimes. The act also created the TIDC as a means of funding indigent defense.

Since its founding, TRLA’s Public Defender Program has expanded from a few attorneys to 16 lawyers. They represent low-income misdemeanor and felony defendants in Bee, Duval, Goliad, Jim Hogg, Lavaca, Live Oak, McMullen, Refugio, Starr, and Willacy counties.

County governments have welcomed the program, which reduces their own costs for criminal defense of indigents. Substantial funding for the program services is usually provided by the state, sometimes temporarily as much as 80 percent.  The assistance from the state will commonly hold at 50 percent.

In an article in the Beeville Bee-Picayune, County Commissioner Dennis Dewitt praised TRLA’s Bee County Regional Public Defender program, which provides indigent defense for Bee and nearby counties. “It is funded by the county but it saves the county money, because we are not funding outside attorneys by the hour,” he said. The newspaper reported that in 2018, the Bee County program handled more than 600 criminal cases in the county and more than 1,200 in the regional service area.

“The Fair Defense Act set TRLA’s public defender program in motion,” Burnett said. “David saw it as a way to address the poor quality of indigent defense in rural areas, particularly where we’re already serving. He saw that we could do it better, because we have experience recruiting high quality attorneys and we could maintain independence from the county governments. His vision was that we are the superior model, the most efficient, flexible model of independent criminal defense.”

nancy nusser