Bar News - November 18, 2011
Getting the Big Picture at the Public Defenders Office in Orford
By: Diane Taylor
This article appeared in the September-October 2011 issue of Upper Valley Life and is reprinted here with permission. Learn more about Upper Valley Life by visiting www.uppervalleylife.com.
If you watch Law & Order (and who doesnít?) then you know all about court appointed attorneys. According to the fictional representation of a public defender as seen on prime time television, your court appointed lawyer will invariably be overworked and underpaid; ill prepared; shabbily dressed; demoralized; and eager to plea bargain your case, even if you are innocent. God forbid you should find yourself accused of a crime and not have enough money to afford your own attorney.
"Really? Thatís the image?" Tony Hutchins, who doesnít watch commercial television, seems surprised. "Thatís a terrible misconception. If I were charged with a crime, I would hope for a public defender, because criminal law is all they do. Theyíre not distracted with wills or bankruptcies, divorce cases or anything else. All they think about is criminal law."
Of courses, Hutchins may be biased, since he himself has been a public defender in Grafton County New Hampshire for more than 20 years. A former Spanish teacher looking for a new challenge, Hutchins came out of Vermont Law School not quite certain what type of law he wanted to practice. When he applied for a job with a law firm that specialized in criminal defense, he was told to get some experience, which he did by finding work with the Public Defenders Office.
He has been there ever since, and is now the managing attorney of a six-lawyer office working out of a converted Catholic church on Route 10 in Orford, N.H. Hutchins doesnít seem the least bit demoralized by his position, representing indigent clients in state and district courts from Lebanon to Plymouth, N.H. He made his peace years ago with the fact that he represents people accused of everything from shoplifting to murder, and what he offers his clients is a professional blend of idealism, compassion and competition.
"I have a strong belief in constitutional rights and the idea that the criminal justice system can work," Hutchins says. "Both sides working hard at what they do brings about justice. It may not be perfect, but itís the closest we can come to a correct result."
In the spring of 2011, Hutchins was representing two clients accused of murder, and he says the Public Defenders Office routinely handles domestic violence and sexual assault cases as well. By all appearances, however, Hutchins seems nonplussed by the idea that outsiders may see him as defending people he knows are guilty of terrible crimes.
"In the first place, I donít know that they are guilty. I am not a witness to the crime. I literally do not know what happened," Hutchins says.
But once assigned to a case, Hutchins adds, the professional detachment he feels is quickly replaced with a strong sense of responsibility to the individual client. "You are faced with a human being who needs your help. My job is to ensure that this person is treated fairly in the courts. Knowing that a person is in your legal care creates a bond that is difficult to describe," he says.
Last, but certainly not least, Hutchins concedes that he really likes to win. "Weíre intellectually competitive people. We have to be," Hutchins says. "You canít succeed in court if you donít enjoy winning."
Sheryl Montague never thought much about representing people accused of crime. For more than 20 years, she worked the other side of the fence, so to speak, forging a career in law enforcement, first with a short stint with the New Hampshire State Police and finishing with an 18-year career with the Grafton County Sheriffís Department. For the last four years, however, Montague has been a full-time private investigator in the Public Defenders Office. By her own admission, the experience has added new dimensions to her understanding of the criminal justice system.
"I donít want to say that I was narrow minded when I was in law enforcement," Montague says, "but working here, I definitely come away with a more complete picture of both the crime and the people involved in it."
It makes sense, when you think about it, that law enforcement officers see only a small glimpse of a criminal scene. They respond to a call. They interview witnesses, collect evidence, file a report, and, for all practical purposes, their involvement with the suspect ends.
But where law enforcementís point of view is necessarily limited, the public defenderís point of view is necessarily expansive. So whether sheís photographing a crime scene or interviewing witnesses, itís a big part of Montagueís job to help the attorneys get as complete a picture as they possibly can.
"You have to understand that when people make statements to the police, they donít tell the whole truth all the time," Montague explains. An official statement may only scrape the surface of a much more complicated story, parts of which people may conceal until they talk to someone who is looking out for their best interests.
According to Montague, the ways that peoplesí lives can spin out of control are too numerous to count. Combinations of drugs and alcohol, job loss, medical emergencies, mental illness and grinding poverty all play their part. So what looks like a clear case of unmitigated thievery on a police report may seem murkier when Montague hunts up the manís medical records from the VA hospital and it turns out heís a soldier suffering from a head injury sustained during his time in Iraq. Maybe he also lost his job, his car wonít start, his wife just filed for divorce, and he hasnít seen his kids.
Before you know it, youíre dealing with a real person rather than a suspect, and that attorney-client bond that Hutchins talks about is a whole lot easier to understand.
"My professional integrity hasnít changed at all, coming from law enforcement to the Public Defenders Office. Iím in a neutral position. I collect information, which I pass along to the attorneys. They decide what to do with it, not me," Montague says.
All the same, Montague says she feels more sympathy for the accused than she used to when she worked for the sheriffís department. Interviewing witnesses in their homes, Montague says the ramifications of rural poverty are impossible to ignore. "Itís a real eye opener," Montague says. "Our clients donít have any money. They wind up with us because they donít have anyone else to turn to for help."
If you are skeptical about Hutchinsí claim that a New Hampshire public defender is the most qualified person to represent you in a court of law, a visit with Adam Hescock might change your mind. Another graduate of Vermont Law School who has been with the Public Defenders Office for four years, Hescock is young, bright and dedicated to his clients.
"I have acquired a huge amount of experience in a relatively short amount of time," Hescock says. "I am usually in court every day, and I get paid for doing exactly what I want to do. I like thinking on my feet. I like being in court. I wouldnít be happy sitting in front of a computer all day."
Working on an average of 60 different cases at a time, Hescock says it has never troubled him that he represents the accused. "No. I have never struggled with that," he says. "I look at myself as a professional. Someone comes to me because he needs my help. I may be the only thing that stands between him and his life being destroyed."
Hescock downplays the idea that defense attorneys routinely represent clients at trial that they know are guilty. "In a clear cut case where a client admits his guilt, thatís where an attorney relies on his skill as a negotiator to arrange the best plea bargain that he can," Hescock says. "But going to trial knowing your client is guilty? That would be extremely rare. It certainly has never happened to me."
Much more common, Hescock explains, is for defense attorneys to commit themselves to uncovering the full story of a clientís involvement in a crime, and make sure a jury sees that complete picture. Like his colleague, Sheryl Montague, Hescock says he sees all the time how easy it is for peoplesí lives to spiral downward.
"A person can have one bad night of drinking and find himself involved in something where the whole structure of his life comes apart," Hescock says. "If you just read the police report, there would be no doubt in your mind that this person is guilty. But we dig deeper. We get the complete story and present that to a jury so they can make an informed decision."
If the unthinkable should happen and you find yourself in need of legal representation in a criminal case, you have to hope for the kind of recommendation of your attorney that Montague offers about her colleagues at the Public Defenders Office: "These are dedicated people who believe strongly in the defense of their clients."
Hutchins is more modest. He shrugs his shoulders and smiles when he says, "I just really like coming to work."