Press Release PD Week 3-13-2017

Director’s Office

Woodrail Centre
1000 West Nifong, Building 7, Suite 100
Columbia, Missouri 65203
Telephone: 573-526-5212  Fax: 573-777-9975

Press Release – For Immediate Release

Public Defender Week – March 13-18, 2017

March 13, 2017 (COLUMBIA, MO)—March 13-18 is Public Defender week. It commemorates the 54th Anniversary of the landmark decision of Gideon v. Wainwright.

Clarence Earl Gideon was a Missourian, from Hannibal, with an eighth-grade education, who was charged with breaking and entering in the State of Florida. At trial, Gideon appeared without an attorney. He asked the judge to appoint counsel because he could not afford an attorney. The trial judge denied Gideon’s request because Florida law only permitted appointment of counsel for poor defendants charged with capital offenses. At trial, Gideon represented himself – he made an opening statement, cross-examined the prosecution’s witnesses, and presented witnesses in his own defense, all while maintaining his innocence. The jury found Gideon guilty and he was sentenced to five years imprisonment. Gideon filed a handwritten petition in the Supreme Court of the United States. The Court agreed to hear the case to resolve the question of whether the right to counsel guaranteed under the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution applies to defendants in state court.  The Court held that the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of counsel is a fundamental right essential to a fair trial and, as such, applies to the states through the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Despite this being one of the few mandates required of state government, Missouri continues to deny this fundamental right to poor Missourians by underfunding indigent defense to such an extent that public defenders have so many cases that it is impossible to provide adequate legal representation for each individual defendant. As a result, people needlessly plead guilty to crimes that they do not commit. Just last week, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a class action against the state for depriving poor Missourians of this constitutional right. According to the ACLU’s press release: “By failing to fix its chronically defective public defense system, Missouri is robbing people of their Sixth Amendment right to counsel. As a result, Missourians accused of crimes often languish in jail for months or plead guilty, despite having a winnable case, just to get out of jail and avoid losing their jobs, their homes, and more time with their families.”

Missouri’s public defenders are committed and skilled. They handle more than 80,000 cases annually, with an average caseload of between 100 – 200 cases at any one time. They are drastically underpaid. Despite the fact that many of our attorneys carry law school debt that exceeds $100,000, starting salary for a public defender is around $39,000 and the maximum that someone can earn as an assistant public defender is about $63,000. “Despite the impossible task which has been placed upon them, public defenders fight daily so that a poor person receives a fair shot in an unfair criminal justice system,” said Michael Barrett, Director of the Missouri State Public Defender System. “They fight to ensure that a poor person receives due process before they are deprived of the one thing they have in this world, their liberty.”

For questions regarding this information, please contact:

Michael Barrett, Director
Missouri Public Defender System
Phone: 573-526-5212