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"If an obscure Florida convict named Clarence Earl Gideon had not sat down in prison with a pencil and paper to write a letter to the Supreme Court, and if the Supreme Court had not taken the trouble to look for merit in that one crude petition among all the bundles of mail it must receive every day, the vast machinery of American law would have gone on functioning undisturbed. 

But Gideon did write that letter. The Court did look into his case and he was retried with the help of a competent defense counsel, found not guilty, and released from prison after two years of punishment for a crime he did not commit, and the whole course of American legal history has been changed."

Attorney General
Robert F. Kennedy

November 11, 1963

Our Distinguished History

“Of all the rights that an accused person has, the right to be represented by counsel is by far the most pervasive for it affects his ability to assert any other rights he may have.”

--Supreme Court of the United States of America, 1984.

The Missouri State Public Defender System is created by authority of Chapter 600, RSMo, and in recognition of the United States Constitutional guarantees of equal protection and due process of law. The system was established in 1972. By 1973, there were 14 public defender offices in the state of Missouri.

In 1976, the Public Defender Commission was created to appoint full-time public defenders to four-year terms and to oversee the system, which provided for the assistance of counsel to indigent persons accused of crimes. Legal representation was provided for felony, juvenile, and misdemeanor cases when the offense charged could result in jail time. By 1977, the total number of public defender offices had reached 18.

In 1982, a house bill amended the system with the creation of the Office of State Public Defender (OSPD) as an independent department of the judicial branch of state government. The house bill further outlined the legal services to be provided to eligible persons entitled to counsel, gave authority to the Commission to issue guidelines for making determinations of indigency, and provided for the collection of costs associated with defending the poor who are accused of crimes.

By 1987, 23 public defender offices existed and employed 233 people. The remainder of the state was served by contracts with private attorneys. At that time, the system provided representation in more than 41,000 cases annually.

In 1989, the State Public Defender System received funding for a reorganization that created three specialized legal services divisions:

  • Capital Division, responsible for death penalty trial representation
  • Appellate/PCR Division, responsible for appellate and post-conviction litigation, including capital cases
  • Trial Division, responsive to the trial courts in Missouri's 115 jurisdictions (through regional and district offices)

Today, there are 36 district offices, 6 appellate sections, and 3 capital sections. The System employs approximately 560 dedicated people. Members of the private bar are now used only for cases in which a conflict of interest exists. We handle nearly 90,000 cases a year. Our trained lawyers and support staff proudly fight every day in courts throughout the state of Missouri to ensure justice is served for all Missourians who are charged with crimes but who are too poor to hire a lawyer.