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Wednesday, Dec 17, 2014
Crime & Courts

Public defenders show dedication to justice


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TAMPA - Federal Public Defender Donna Elm likes to say her staff is dedicated and committed.

But to many people, public defenders just take taxpayer money to get bad guys off the hook.

Why, the Tribune asked, are public defenders so passionate about what they do?

They have, Elm said, "a real strong belief in how our justice system and our government is strong is (because) there are people who are checks and balances, and that we are part of that, keeping our government honest and showing our government cares enough about its citizens to provide fine counsel."

Elm also said public defenders help keep the streets safe "by getting people who are having problems the help that they need so they're not going to do the crime. You keep it safe by getting them short sentences so they can still get a job when they get out ... so there's something to live for and something to do well for."

She provided an essay written by one of her investigators in Fort Myers, Dino Lazzizzera, to "kind of to give us some inspiration during these tough times."

Here are some excerpts:

"Who are the clients of the federal public defender? The general public would say drug dealers, thugs, people with a history of criminal activity, and even perverts. They don't think about the woman with a crippling disease, the want-to-be builder with a young family, or an inexperienced real estate entrepreneur. Let's put a face to these other clients the federal defender represents.

"Client A was a woman accused of fraud. She was suffering from a crippling disease which left her home bound. She had no money to hire an attorney to defend her from the might of the US government. So she was appointed a federal defender. The woman was looking at a significant prison sentence, something that for this woman would surely be a death sentence. Her lawyer and investigator worked endlessly to convince the court that her confinement to her home was equivalent to a prison sentence... The judge sentenced her to probation.

"Client B was a want-to-be builder who was seduced by the housing boom that led to the ruin of so many. Just like thousands of people during that time, he wanted to capitalize on this real estate market. Inexperienced, he began on a venture of building condos. When the market collapsed, he was accused of bank fraud and was indicted. At the point that the boom fizzled, he had no money for a lawyer. A federal public defender was appointed.

They worked endlessly for the client. Finally, judgment day. At the end of a long trial, the jury found the father of a young family Not Guilty. The jury agreed that although he may have been over his head due to inexperience, he did not commit a crime...

"These clients have one thing in common. They are not thugs, drug dealers, or perverts. They are not people who have prior criminal records. One of them actually did not even commit a crime! If not for the tireless efforts of the federal defenders and their staff, who knows what would have become of these people?

"What will you do if the mighty United States government accuses you of a crime? What will you do if you do not have the money to hire an effective attorney? With staff being reduced due to the sequester, will you have effective representation?"

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