Letter to the Editor

In defense of public defenders

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Dear Editor,

I feel the need to comment on a couple of Mike Hendricks' lead-in comments to his commentary on domestic abuse ["A sad story from Douglas County" (http:// www.mccookgazette.com/story/1177914.html)].

It is not clear from his article what sources he accessed in making his comments, but I have practiced law across the State of Nebraska for 17 years and continue to do so. Mr. Hendricks does a disservice to public defenders by claiming they do tend "not to encompass the same level of skill, knowledge, expertise and effort" as private sector attorneys.

Some of the finest and most skillful attorneys are found in the public defender and Legal Aid offices across this state. Many, if not most, of these attorneys are intelligent, conscientious, hard-working advocates for their clients. There will always be exceptions, but for the most part these attorneys are "fighters." Many of these attorneys work for a comparatively low income because they believe they can make a difference for the clients they serve.

Second, Mr. Hendricks also makes the general claim that we have "decisions or verdicts that make little or no sense at all. We often find ourselves wondering if the judge or jury heard the same testimony and evaluated the same evidence we did because their decision simply didn't make any sense."

It is not clear what testimony or evidence Mr. Hendricks claims "we" heard or evaluated, but unless he is in the courtroom throughout the duration of a trial, he will not be in a position to judge the credibility of the witnesses or the strengths or weaknesses of the evidence presented by both parties.

It is the judges and the juries who are in a position to weigh the relative merits of the case, whether it be a criminal case or a civil case. Reading excerpts from a newspaper column is not the same as "hearing and evaluating" the evidence after listening to all of the witnesses and reviewing all of the documentary evidence.

Thank you for this opportunity to respond.

Sally A. Rasmussen,

via e-mail

Mike Hendricks responds: It is not surprising that Ms. Rasmussen would choose to defend her chosen profession. It is factual, however, that judges and juries convict the innocent and acquit the guilty every day in this country. Obviously, it's not done intentionally, but it's done just the same. And when decisions are overturned by appeals courts, they are overturned because of procedural errors made during the original trial. Every profession has its stars and its duds and the legal profession is no different. We have good teachers and bad teachers, good cops and bad cops, good electrician's and bad electrician's and good lawyers and bad lawyers. My column was not written as an indictment of the legal system; it was written to criticize a specific sentence handed down in a specific court by a specific judge that, unfortunately, reflects the unawareness of the criminal justice system in general when it comes to the dynamics of family violence. I'm sorry if Ms. Rasmussen believes I analyze verdicts made by judges and juries based on what I read in the newspaper. I do not. Nancy Grace, an attorney and former prosecutor who has her own show on Court TV, does enough of that for all of us.

But I have attended complete trials before, hearing the same testimony and observing the same evidence that was presented to the jury and leaving befuddled about the process they used to reach a decision. The specific case I referred to in my column did not involve a verdict, it involved a sentence that did not reflect the severity of the crime.

There is NO excuse, ever, for a grown man to beat his child because he struck out in a baseball game. Ever. To not punish him more severely was a miscarriage of justice.

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