Duty-bound To Safeguard The Rights Of The Accused
For Public Defenders, The Job Is To Do Their Best As Advocates;
It Is Up To The Jury To Decide Guilt Or Innocence.
By Lyn A.E. McCafferty, SPECIAL TO THE INQUIRER
--Posted: February 20, 1992
It's 10 a.m. Monday in criminal court and the large colonial-style courtroom is already packed with people.
The door opens and a well-dressed woman is ushered into the courtroom and led to an empty row by her attorney.
A few rows back, a man in a flannel shirt sits somberly with his family. He is being representated by a public defender.. Both were charged with drunken driving. Both have problems with alcohol.
The private attorney has only one case on the week's list of 104 defendants. The assistant public defender, David L. Sigismonti, has 18.
With so many cases, Sigismonti said, he has to work the courtroom the way a socialite works a cocktail party: listen, give advice and maybe offer a reassuring hand before going on to the next defendant.
Sigismonti is one of the 30 lawyers who work for the county's Public Defender's Office. A small, specialized group, these lawyers represent those that no one else will - those who can not afford private counsel.
Although many of the people they represent are guilty of the crimes they are accused of - some admittedly so - others are innocent, according to Public Defender Nicholas G. Theodore. "A lot of people say, 'How can you defend these people?' It's not our place to decide who's guilty or innocent. We are here to see that their rights are fully protected that are guaranteed in the judicial process," Theodore said.
Many defendants have been caught up in a set of circumstances they can no longer control: drug addiction, alcoholism or mental problems. Some have been driven to crime out of desperation or depression, Assistant Public Defender Ruth R. Shafer said.
They have been accused of crimes that run the gamut from drunken driving, retail thefts, burglary and robbery to domestic violence, rape and murder, Theodore said. "The only people we generally don't represent are white-collar criminals, like the folks involved with the S & L scandals," he said.
For the people they assist, public defenders may be the only people who stand between them and jail. "It's not uncommon to hear, 'You're supposed to be on my side' from our clients," Theodore said. "We are here to advocate for the defendant, not help him fabricate his story."
"Let's face it, a large percentage of our clients are guilty. Sometimes, the best we can do is work out a deal with the commonwealth so they get consideration for entering a guilty plea," Theodore said.
"It is the defendant who ultimately decides whether to plead guilty or go to trial", he said.
"We are an advocate for the defendant. We are duty-bound by law to do the best job for the defendant to make sure their rights under the Constitution are being protected," Theodore said.
Each public defender has his or her own style and way of dealing with clients. Most of the lawyers said they joined the office to help individuals - and later realized they also were defending the public's rights by providing checks and balances on the police and the criminal-justice process.
Theodore has been guiding the office for the last five years. A laid-back casual man who illustrates his points with hand gestures, Theodore has the benefit of knowing the public-defender system intimately.
He was part of the county's office at its inception in 1965, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Gideon v. Wainright that everyone was entitled to be represented in court who faced jail time.
When the office was started, Theodore was one of three staff members. Now he is in charge of 42 staff members - 30 of whom are lawyers. Theodore left the office in 1969 when he was appointed superintendent of the U.S. Mint, a post he held until 1978. He returned to the office in 1987 when he was appointed public defender.
The office handles about 230 cases a month on the Common Pleas level, and about twice as many defendants in bail hearings, domestic-relations hearings, preliminary hearings, and protection-from-abuse hearings.
During Theodore's tenure, starting salaries for lawyers have increased from $15,000 to $24,000. Trial-team leaders earn $35,000 a year.
Theodore said he treated each of his employees as professionals. "Their cases are their cases. I don't look over their shoulders. But I'm always here if they need a sounding board," Theodore said.
In his corduroy suits, Sigismonti looks more like a college professor than a lawyer.
This is his second stint with the Public Defender's Office. He worked there in the early 1980s before going into private practice.
"It was difficult to do when I first got out of law school. I couldn't reconcile defending some of the folks I did," Sigismonti said. "I think I would have rather been prosecuting the cases then. Since then, I've become more seasoned and realized our job is more challenging than the DA's."
He said he found it ironic that people had the misconception that a private attorney would get them a better deal. In reality, not a week goes by without a private attorney approaching him to ask what to do with a case or how the judge will handle it.
"We're looked down upon and yet we're there in the courtroom all the time, and serving as a source for the 'real' lawyers," Sigismonti said.
He came back to the office in 1987 for the steady pay and the flexibility of managing his cases as he sees fit.
"There is no L.A. Law atmosphere of board meetings to decide how to defend a case. I just reach into my mail bin every day, find new cases there and go with them," Sigismonti said. "I wanted to be a lawyer to make things right. I didn't think about making money. I just wanted to try to right the circumstances of people's lives. But it still hurts if we fail."