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Tennessee's Public Defenders Are Drowning in Cases

February 9, 2017
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The state of Tennessee is in the midst of an ongoing crisis in its judicial system, even causing one public defender to sit on the other side of the bench. Dawn Deaner had been an elected public defender in Nashville since 2008, but in early Sept. 2016, she found herself examined by none other than district attorney Glenn Funk.criminal attorney

The reason? To shed light on an otherwise under-reported subject: under-staffing and limited resources at the Metro Public Defender’s Office.

The case’s evidence dates back to 2013, then a man by the name of John Hernandez was indicted for the murder of his mother-in-law after the case had gone cold for 20 years. Hernandez was in custody in Texas at the time for different charges, but it took just shy of a year to extradite him back to Tennessee. There, he awaited representation from the Metro Public Defender’s Office.

The office was swamped with other cases, and Hernandez’s case was continuously pushed. He did not have his hearing for the crime he’d committed until February 2016, after sitting in a Nashville jail cell for nearly two years.

Hernandez said that if the court could not provide him counsel, he’d rather represent himself, an ill-advised move in any case, but especially when it comes to criminal law.

His appointed attorney, who hadn’t had time to even begin preparing his case, made a motion to dismiss the case, citing that he’d been deprived his constitutional right to a fair and speedy trial. From there, Hernandez was faced with a decision. He could either have his trial then and there, or an attorney could represent him. However, at that point, he could not have both.

Deaner was one of the public criminal attorneys to sit as witnesses on the hearing to overturn the motion. Eventually, the motion was overturned and Hernandez was convicted of the murder, but the problem still remained: why had this happened in the first place?

An increasing number of charged persons in Tennessee are unable to hire a criminal attorney due to financial reasons. In these cases, an attorney is provided. But when public defenders are swamped with cases, they are simply unable to perform all of their duties.

On average, a public defender should not be responsible for more than 500 misdemeanor cases annually. According to Deaner, however, during fiscal year 2012, the defenders were tasked with around 1,000 cases per person, only giving them roughly an hour for each one.

As the public defender’s office continues to struggle with resources and chronic under-staffing, it is important for anyone facing legal trouble to seek the expert legal knowledge of a private attorney.

While not all of these cases may be as monumental as Hernandez’s, that doesn’t mean that they are any less valid. Whether you need a criminal attorney to represent you for a felony or a divorce attorney to help you collect your entitled portion of over $100 billion in unpaid child support, contact the law office of Ken Phillips.

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