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Date Created: 12/21/15
VIEW POINT 1.800.973.1177 Christopher McKee: On Working as a Public Defender [by Teresa Talerico] For Washington, DC, public defender Christopher McKee, it’s not uncommon to play social worker as part of his job. A supervisor in the Serious Felony Section of agency. That’s how you begin to build your now: DNA evidence, forensic evidence like the Public Defender Service for the District resume in the area. You get the contacts that fingerprints, and crime scene analysis. After of Columbia and a former public defender in way, and you also get exposure to the kinds being in the area for eight years, that’s where DeKalb County, GA, Mr. McKee often helps of work you would be doing. Summer clerk- I find my strengths. find housing, education, and other social ships or internships are probably the second services for clients who are acquitted or best way to do it. Most law schools will have Q: What should aspiring public defenders be released. For example, there was the woman some sort of organized summer grant pro- prepared for that they might not expect? who suffered from bipolar disorder, had gram for people who work in public interest. bounced in and out of the criminal justice The third (option) would be to see, if you’re A: The entry-level positions will vary a little system on various drug-related charges, and a graduate, if you can get an interview with by office. When I was in Georgia, the entry- later became pregnant. Mr. McKee eventually a public defender’s office or see if they have level position was a difficult job because you found her a home at a center for mentally ill an appointed counsel system that handles had to…handle high-volume caseloads with a women who are pregnant. all the cases that public defenders don’t. You wide variety of different charges. can get on a list and pick up cases by court “They really stabilized her life,” he says. appointment. In the office here in D.C., we have a training “Now she has a job and she’s taking care of program for the first eight weeks with new her baby and she hasn’t been in trouble in Q: Do you recommend joining any organiza- attorneys. Then you go into juvenile court and the last two years. Those things are reward- tions? begin with bench trials, helping orient you to ing.” the social problems your clients face, as well as the criminal case that they have. You do a A: The National Association of Criminal Q: What attracted you to this kind of work? Defense Lawyers is a good one. They have a lot of work, maybe in coordination with social student membership fee. Any of your local workers or different agencies, in trying to get A: I got a master’s degree in theological jurisdictions will have a criminal defense your client back on track, while also strug- studies and my law degree at Emory Uni- bar, so students or graduates should become g ling with whatever charges they may be versity. So I went in with a public interest, active with that. Your local bar organiza- facing. You sometimes wear the hat of social service-oriented vocation track. The first tion usually will have a section for criminal worker, lawyer, guardian. internship I did was with a nonprofit criminal law. It’s actually underutilized by students. defense group called the Georgia Justice It’s really an opportunity to be involved with Q: What kinds of charges would one handle Project. Once I worked for them, it seemed to other members of the bar who are devoted to as an entry-level public defender? be where I fit the best. criminal defense. A: If you start out in juvenile court, you’ll do Q: What advice do you have for aspiring pub- Q: What is a typical day like for you? everything from a simple assault or unau- lic defenders? thorized use of a motor vehicle to a murder A: I personally do serious felonies, which fall case. A: The first way to get a good foot in is to do into either homicide cases or serious sexual- an internship. Most law schools will have an assault cases. I’ve done that for the last two Q: So it’s a baptism by fire? internship in the area of criminal defense, years. Those are cases that have usually if not with the public defender’s office, than complicated forensic issues and that’s prob- A: A little bit. Your murder cases…you would with some other nonprofit or government ably a little bit of what I enjoy the most right have a senior lawyer working with you on it. PAGE 1 1.800.973.1177 VIEW POINT And certainly because it’s a juvenile case, it’s not a conviction; you’re adjudicated as either involved or not involved; you can’t be held beyond the age of 21, and it doesn’t go on your permanent record. But the charges them - selves are serious. Q: You mentioned you sometimes wear the social worker hat. What is that like? A: When your client comes in with a crimi - nal charge, there usually is a constellation of problems that that individual is facing. They may be truant. They may have fam - ily problems, which can go from they don’t have proper public housing or they don’t have proper money to support the family. In order to stabilize your client, if your client is to be released back into the community, you have to make sure they have the kind of housing that’s going to be stable enough that the client doesn’t get into trouble again. You may have to help with public benefits. You may have to help if the person hasn’t been properly treated within the education system. We think of it as an opportunity to take an individual who’s been charged with a crime to get sort of stabilized in their life. Q: What should a public defender always remember about his or her clients? A: That the system in and of itself does not re - ally recognize your client’s dignity as a human being. So it’s important that you remember that and that you use it as an opportunity to assure them that they’re going to be treated fairly, that they’re a human being and they de - serve to have someone standing next to them and defending them. That’s what our entire system’s built upon. PAGE 2
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