Why All of Us Need a Public Defender

Recently Missouri’s Public Defender budget crisis has garnered national attention. As the wife of an attorney in Boone County’s office, I’m more than well acquainted with why this is a problem. As friends and family members have shared thoughts and questions, I’ve thought back to the first time I heard my husband Jeremy talk about his job and the way it intersects with the Gospel.

Here are three of the most common questions people ask (excluding the lawyer jokes) along with a few reflections about why Christians should care.

  1. What exactly is a Public Defender?

Because of America’s love affair with crime dramas, most people are familiar with the words of the Miranda Rights, “You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford one, one will be provided to you.” In Missouri, a public defender is the attorney you receive if you can’t afford one.

Most of us are familiar with some of the flaws of America’s criminal justice system. Lawyers like my husband are more aware of these problems than most. Yet the reason Jeremy and many of his colleagues would classify it as one of the best in the world is in part because of the right to representation regardless of the ability to pay guaranteed in the 6th and 14th amendments of the Constitution. Justice can only be done when both sides are fairly represented. Abuse of power happens when there aren’t checks and balances and when those in poverty are further marginalized.

Throughout the Bible we hear that God also cares about these types of equity issues.  Exodus 23:6 simply states, “Do not deny justice to your poor people in their lawsuits.” Countless Psalms and the Book of James speak of the Lord’s care for those who are poor, the justice He provides on their behalf, and his charge for those who follow him to do the same.

  1. I’ve seen Making a Murderer, listened to Serial, saw this episode on Dateline about a wrongful conviction, etc... Do you think _________ is innocent? Is your job a lot like that? It’s so important that people who are falsely accused get the justice they deserve.

Few things have helped me to recognize the importance of my husband’s job than listening to a story told to us on a bus ride through the mountains of Guatemala. A man was falsely accused of a serious crime because he shared the same name as the man who the authorities were actually looking for. The man was a tenant farmer who lived in extreme poverty. Because Guatemala does not guarantee the right to counsel to its indigent citizens, the man sat in prison for a lengthy amount of time on a clerical error before his wife was able to sell/mortgage enough of their possessions to hire someone to catch the mistake. Once the man was freed, the amount of debt accrued to hire the attorney financially crushed the family to the point where he was again taken into custody because of an inability to pay off the debt created by paying the lawyer. In many respects, he was punished for being poor not once, but twice.

As mentioned earlier, America’s justice system is hardly without its flaws but stories like these illustrate the importance of protecting our most vulnerable citizens.

Psalm 140:13 says, “I know that the Lord secures justice for the poor and upholds the cause of the needy.” One way that He does this is through the work of men and women at The Public Defender’s office.

As a quick aside, the Bible is also quick to share stories of those unjustly imprisoned. Potipher’s wife falsely accused Joseph sending him to prison, Shadrach, Meschack, Abednego, Daniel, Jeremiah, John the Baptist, Paul and others find themselves facing unjust imprisonment and lethal consequences. Jesus himself is the ultimate example of this as the only perfect man who ever lived dies the most brutal of deaths reserved for the most savage of crimes.

  1. What do you do if someone is guilty? Do you have to defend people like that?

Once people find out that Jeremy is a Public Defender, this question almost immediately follows. As a Christian, how could someone represent not just the innocent, but those who very well may have committed a serious offense? The answer to that question is far more complicated than the scope of this blog post, but part of Jeremy’s response perhaps best sums up how Christians in particular might think about such things.

When asked this question, Jeremy shares how becoming a Christian after law school solidified part of his pre-existing worldview that all people have worth, value, and dignity regardless of who they are or what they’ve done, that all people are made in the image of God. As D.A. Horton so aptly put it in a recent tweet, “A person’s criminal history does not remove the imago dei.”

What has always been most impactful of all, however, is how Jeremy speaks of His own guilty sentence before a holy and just God and how he had an advocate when he least deserved it, even when he was guilty and should’ve been condemned.

Hebrews 7:25 says, “Therefore he [Jesus] is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.” The truth is, when it comes to eternity, all of us are in need of a Public Defender to intercede in this way for us not because we are rich and innocent, but because we are poor and guilty. As the old hymn reminds us, “Nothing in my hands I bring. Simply to the cross I cling.”

I’m thankful for my husband and others I know who remind me of this Gospel truth and the way they reflect God’s character by caring for vulnerable and hurting people through their vocation.

jeremy

Adapted from the original post “I Never Wanted to Marry a Lawyer.”

2 Comments

  1. Thank you for this post and this reminder. I think we all need to be reminded from time to time about how we should extend the Grace God gave to us to others. It’s also refreshing to see your husband applying his christian values to his difficult job and helping others.

  2. Max Mitchell said:

    Jeremy is a gift to every single one of his clients.

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