Public Defender

Sandra Diehl stands in the file room of the Coconino County public defenders office Thursday afternoon.

Jake Bacon, Arizona Daily Sun

When Sandra Diehl and her team of 12 lawyers start their work day on the second floor of 110 E. Cherry Avenue they arrive to a stack of new cases and clients from Flagstaff to Fredonia.

Diehl’s team will receive no retainer and earn no hourly rate because they are public defenders, responsible for the people who can’t afford representation in Coconino County.

Employees at the Coconino County Public Defender’s Office talk a lot about their purpose to protect a citizen's Sixth Amendment right, which guarantees a right to a quick and public trial as well as the right to an attorney.

“Our purpose is to assist those in need of a quality defense who can’t afford it,” Deputy Public Defender Roberta McVickers said.

The public defender’s office assists a large number of individuals through the sometimes long and complicated legal process.

Over 2,300 adult felony cases were represented by a Coconino County Public Defender at some point of the legal process in fiscal year 2016.

According to Diehl, her felony lawyers are currently dealing with a workload of between 62 and 95 cases, not including some misdemeanor cases, juvenile court, veterans court and DUI court.

The public defender's office only deals with misdemeanors if the defendant is facing jail time; civil court cases that require a public attorney use the legal defender's office with the exception of child dependency cases.

The legal defender's office is also responsible for representing clients who may cause a conflict of interest to the public defender's office, such as when there are two defendants involved in the same incident.

Even if a defendant chooses to get a private attorney, the public defender’s office is still involved in the initial court process, even if the state does not file charges.

"We are appointed on almost all felony cases when someone is initially arrested if they qualify for an appointment, whether they are ultimately charged or not," McVickers said. "So our total would include cases that the state subsequently didn’t file charges on."

All of those felony cases will involve an initial appearance, release determination, grand jury and arraignment. Out of those cases many will reach a plea deal while some go to trial and possibly an appeal.

It's a process that can sometimes last years.

“We are representing our clients through the entire legal process just like any other lawyer, but we don’t get to pick who we represent,” Diehl said. “Everyone has a constitutional right to a lawyer and we are here to make sure people who can’t afford a private lawyer are on a level playing field.”

Knowledgeable room

The Coconino County Public Defender’s Office does not have a retention problem. Of the 13 attorneys who work in the public defender’s office, six have been there more than 10 years.

“It is unique to have so many people who have worked here this long,” McVickers said. “I think that shows the quality of our management and a belief in our purpose.”

Diehl said that people in her office know quickly if they are not going to like this job and that those who remain public defenders truly believe in representing those in need.

“You aren’t going to get rich working for the county and you are not going to get a huge retainer,” Diehl said. “People don’t go into public defender work to get rich. They have the elements of a social worker. They want to help the tiny person go against the system.”

Diehl describes her office as a “chain of continuity -- people came in and they seldom left.”

That experience is key as the public defender’s office deals with cases across Coconino County.

“We do preliminary hearings in Page every other Thursday and we have one person dedicated to Williams so we have to run a small and very tight ship,” Diehl said.

Some cases are more high-profile than others. McVickers is serving as the defense for Derrick Barnett, who is accused of two counts of first-degree murder after allegedly killing a Williams couple in May.

Public defenders also made up a large portion of attorneys for individuals arrested during Operation Nightfall, a 2016 drug bust that led to 25 felony arrests.

More people

Diehl said her office is spread thin on a budget of $2.5 million, and she would like to hire another attorney.

By comparison the Coconino County Attorney's Office has a fiscal year budget of over $3.7 million for fiscal year 2017 and charged 1,812 felony cases in Fiscal year 2016, according to the Coconino County annual budget and County Attorneys Annual Report.

That number is less than the number of felony cases the public defender's office represented last year because the public defender's office is also required to represent clients in multiple justice courts in Page, Williams and Flagstaff.

"I love the county and they have been a great employer to us," Diehl said. "But we could use another lawyer to help manage."

Despite the high workload Diehl and her team remain in high spirits, motivated by their work.

"We are proud of our work here," Diehl said. "The people who work here just really want to help their clients out of a jam."

 

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Max Lancaster is the crime and courts reporter for the Arizona Daily Sun. He enjoys all things music and just learned how Kombucha is made.

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