Thursday, August 26, 2004

Lawsuit: Public Defender's Office fails

Defendants steered away from juries, lawyer says

By Dan Horn
Enquirer staff writer

Poor defendants in Hamilton County suffer unnecessarily harsh punishments because the Public Defender's Office fails to seek jury trials in many criminal cases, a federal lawsuit claimed Wednesday.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of all indigent defendants, accuses public defenders of being "recklessly indifferent" to the need to try some cases before a jury.

Too often, the suit claims, cases either end with a plea bargain or with a trial that is argued before a judge rather than a jury.

"Sometimes you're better off with a jury," said Robert Newman, the Cincinnati lawyer who filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court. "The Public Defender's Office is acting in accordance with expediency rather than what's best for its clients."

The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages on behalf of all defendants who have been charged with misdemeanors and sought the help of the Public Defender's Office, which provides legal counsel to anyone who cannot afford it.

Public Defender Louis Strigari could not be reached for comment Wednesday, but he has acknowledged in the past that his attorneys struggle to balance a large number of cases every day.

Newman said that struggle forces them to push clients toward plea bargains or trials before a judge because they do not have time to prepare for a full jury trial.

The lawsuit is one of several Newman has filed in recent years against the public defender. He previously has argued that the county should increase the office's budget and should pay more money to appointed lawyers in felony cases.

Misdemeanor cases, the least serious offenses, are handled by the office's staff lawyers; while the more serious felony cases are handed off to private counsel, who are then paid by the county.

Newman said he hopes the threat of his lawsuit and a damage award in court will prompt county officials to improve the legal service it provides to poor defendants.

"The goal is to change the system," Newman said.



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