Monday, December 8, 2008

Jacksonville's New PD Slashes Experienced Staff

Jacksonville's newly elected Public Defender, Matt Shirk, is shaking up Duval county by firing 10 of the office's most experienced defense attorneys. The firings are ostensibly brought on by budgetary concerns, as Chief Circuit Judge Donald Moran noted in the Florida Times-Union that Shirk would likely be able to hire two or three young lawyers for the price of each seasoned professional.

But the very real concern is that Shirk might be sacrificing quality for quantity. Many of these public defenders, with over 300 years' combined experience, were "superstars," says the Times-Union. With the talent gone, "the legal community expressed concern about the quality of legal services the office will be able to provide and the appellate cost to the public." In fact, these lawyers are of such a high caliber, says the same paper, that

At first blush, the criterion for recent personnel cuts... appears to be notable success defending criminally accused people who are too poor to hire their own lawyers.

The list of 10 lawyers fired by Shirk - who defeated incumbent Bill White on Nov. 4 - reads like a who's who of the Jacksonville-based office's stars.

The JaxPolitics blog notes that the impending personnel shortage is not local to Florida:

In addition, many Public Defenders Offices throughout the nation are now overloaded with cases and have serious funding issues that must be addressed. Currently, public defenders in 7 states (including Florida) are either refusing to take on new cases or have filed lawsuits due to overburdened case loads which prevent them from providing effective assistance of counsel.

Says the Times-Union, for example "the office had eight lawyers qualified by the state to try death penalty cases; the firings leave three, and two of those are assigned to Clay and Nassau counties." The firings are making a bad situation worse, first by firing the most talented professionals employed by the county, and secondly leaving the remaining lawyers stretched too thin. Add to that that Jacksonville is the murder capital of Florida, and you've got a recipe for chronic inadequacy.

Two of the defenders who are being forced out, Ann Finnell and Patrick McGuinness, were the subjects of the 2001 Oscar-winning HBO documentary Murder on a Sunday Morning, which told how the Jacksonville Police Department had wrongly accused 15-year-old Brenton Butler of a murder and obtained a false confession by beating him senseless during an interrogation.

The Butler episode calls into higher relief the point that the work of experienced defense attorneys may be the only thing that stands in the way of innocent people being convicted. Were it not for the talents of Finnell and McGuiness, Brenton Butler may have been wrongly convicted.

It makes sense that freeing up money would mean letting go of the most experienced defenders in Duval county. But the Times-Union hypothesizes that Shirk's motives might have been in part to weaken the ability of the county to offer competent defense, or even to punish the most pugnacious defenders that the county had on its payroll. "[McGuinness] also blamed Shirk's endorsement by the police union," they report, "noting several of the lawyers let go were among the most aggressive at questioning officers in court."

Shelly Eckles, one of the "Jacksonville 10," notes she was never interviewed by Shirk, and says she was never disciplined during her tenure at the PD's office, leaving no obvious personality or professional reason for the firing. Mark Woods of the Times-Union recently wrote an article on another one of the doomed, Alan Chipperfield. Woods noted, "Some believe it's politics. Shirk has insisted the reason for the change is money. Chipperfield's salary is $134,000. And while that sounds good to most of us, one thing is certain: Chipperfield could have made more in the private sector."

Many of these defenders, like Chipperfield, took pay cuts when they moved from private practice to the PD. Odd, then, that they were summarily fired when they have previously demonstrated that they are willing to make less money if it means doing the right thing and doing it well. If budgetary concerns were Shirk's sole motivation, he could have asked some of them to take a pay cut while maintaining the viability of the Jacksonville PD's office, but the case of Shelly Eckles shows that that was not Shirk's real motive.

The JaxPolitics blog thinks the problem might be more serious than a politicized department. This situation might have implications for Florida's system of electing Public Defenders as a whole, says the author:

Let’s be honest. How many of us regular folks who aren’t involved in the justice system, are willing to support someone in an elected office who will strongly fight for the rights of an accused person? How many of us are willing to put our votes behind spending money to defend murderers and drug dealers? As evidenced by the recent election in Jacksonville, evidently not enough of us. Yet, with an elected Public Defender the integrity of our justice system requires us to do just that if we are to maintain a healthy legal system.

Meanwhile, those who will not be returning to their offices on January 6th have placed pictures of the Black Spot on their office doors, a reference to the mythical pirate code for being doomed to execution, and a gesture of defiance and unity.

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Anonymous said...

McGuinness, Finnell, Chipperfield and others were leaving anyway. To suggest that Shirk fired these attorney's is simply contrary to the facts. Did you even attempt to contact Shirk for a response before posting this? It would seem appropriate to at least request a response.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Not true at all.