I started to write a column about the differences in results delivered by appointed criminal defense attorneys, public defenders, and retained private attorneys.
Before I start contrasting the results, I need to run a column first that explains the different types.
When a person is charged with an offense, he has several options how to defend against the charge.
First, he can use no attorney at all and represent himself. There’s a reason the saying goes, “The defendant who represents himself has a fool for a client.” Even being a lawyer, I would never defend myself on anything more serious than a speeding ticket. If you’re acting as both the defendant and the defense lawyer, you give away the cushion of objective observation that a lawyer can provide you.
The next choice a defendant might make is to hire a private attorney, also called a “retained attorney.” This is a lawyer who maintains a private practice and can be hired to defend criminal cases. There are no 100% criminal defense specialists in Northeast Alabama. The market is not big enough for anyone to specialize that exclusively.
Private attorneys deliver objectively the best results for their criminal defense clients. More on that later.
The next choice the defendant might make for his defense is to use the public defender’s office—if the court has one.
A public defender is a government employee whose full-time job is to defend criminal cases for defendants who can’t afford to hire lawyers. This attorney doesn’t have any private practice and his entire earning ability is a salary paid from the public treasury. This is sort of an anti-prosecutor. His job is very similar to the prosecutor’s, only he’s defending the case instead of prosecuting it.
There are even some courts where the public defender’s office gets assigned to every single case, unless and until a private attorney enters an appearance.
Some of the very best criminal defense lawyers I know are public defenders. They are committed to the cause of criminal defense, and utterly immersed in it, and at least some of them really know their stuff.
There are no public defenders in the state courts of Cherokee County or in those of any Alabama county that adjoins it. Instead, Northeast Alabama relies on the system of appointed criminal defense attorneys.
An appointed or “assigned” criminal defense attorney is a lawyer who maintains a private practice, but also has made it known he wants appointments to defend indigent clients. When a defendant requests appointed counsel, he completes a form about his financial situation. If the judge agrees the defendant is unable to hire a lawyer, he can appoint a lawyer to that defendant. I for one can’t afford to take these cases because Alabama’s hourly rate for appointed attorneys is deplorable.
Appointed criminal defense attorneys as a group deliver results that are objectively worse than those of the other kinds of criminal defense attorneys. That’s the column I started out to write. Keep reading over the coming weeks.