Washington, DC (August 17, 2007) -- Carmen Hernandez today condemned the jailing of a public defender who refused to go to trial unprepared. Brian Jones, a public defender in Portage County, Ohio, was arrested for contempt after refusing to begin the misdemeanor assault trial of Jordan Scott. Mr. Scott’s case was assigned to Mr. Jones on Wednesday; the trial was to have begun at 1:30 pm Thursday.
Ms. Hernandez is the President of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
Ms. Hernandez’s Statement:
A public defender in Ohio was jailed yesterday for contempt after refusing to proceed to trial unprepared. He had been appointed just one day before the trial was to start. To imprison a defense attorney for standing up for his client and complying with his ethical obligations and doing what our Constitution and laws demand is just plain wrong.
The judge in the case accused the public defender of “impeding justice.” An unprepared defense and undo haste cause far more injustice than minor delays and offend the fundamental guarantees that are the birthright of every American.
It is a fundamental right of every person accused to be represented in a criminal trial by a competent counsel and that requires that counsel conduct an investigation, interview witnesses and understand the case. The framers of the Constitution understood this when they guaranteed to us in the Bill of Rights the right “to have the assistance of counsel” when accused of a crime. Nearly fifty years ago, in Gideon v Wainwright, the Supreme Court explained that the assistance of counsel is “one of the safeguards of the Sixth Amendment deemed necessary to insure fundamental human rights of life and liberty. The Sixth Amendment stands as a constant admonition that if the constitutional safeguards it provides be lost, justice will not ‘still be done.’ And that without it, “though he be not guilty, [an accused] faces the danger of conviction because he does not know how to establish his innocence.”
For the jury or judge to find the truth at trial, the defense must understand the case and be prepared. Defense lawyers must have investigated, talked to the witnesses, researched the law, and, frequently, consulted experts. Indeed, defense attorneys are required to do these things by a long line of U.S. Supreme Court precedent and the ethical rules that govern lawyers in every state in the Union.
Asking a lawyer to go to trial without preparation is like asking a doctor to perform surgery before diagnosing the patient. Harm is inevitable – the facts will be unclear and evidence will be missed. Worst of all, the wrong people may go to jail while real criminals remain at large. We ought not to forget so quickly the lessons that the Duke Lacrosse players who were falsely accused of crimes taught us.
For the scales of justice to be balanced, both the prosecution and the defense must be prepared. Without this balance, mistakes happen. We deserve and are entitled to better than an unreliable criminal justice system. Public defenders must be given the time and resources to do their jobs.
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