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In Missouri, why relying on a public defender can mean you slip through the cracks

A new podcast from the NewsHour examines the public defender system in the United States — and the enormous gaps and problems that undermine its effectiveness. Amna Nawaz and producer Frank Carlson reported from Missouri for this five-part series, and they join Judy Woodruff to discuss the heartbreaking stories they heard and what the flawed system says about American criminal justice.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Let's look at a different part of the criminal justice system, one that's the subject of a new podcast we launched today.

    It's called "Broken Justice," and it focuses on the enormous gaps and problems with the public defender system in the United States.

    Our five-part series zeros in on how this has been playing out for decades in Missouri and what it tells us about justice in America.

    Amna Nawaz and producer Frank Carlson reported from Missouri for this series. And they join me now.

    Hello to both of you.

    Let's talk about it.

    So, Amna, how did you get interested in this? What drew you to this particular subject?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, Judy, the story of this podcast actually began right here on the "NewsHour" over a year ago.

    There was a story reported by our colleague John Yang. It was produced by Frank back then. And it focused on how public defenders in Missouri were basically saying, we refuse to take any more cases because we are so overwhelmed.

    Now, over the course of the next year, Frank continued to dig, alongside our colleague, podcast producer Vika Aronson. And I tagged along.

    And they basically pulled an incredible number of details that painted a very alarming picture of just how bad the backlogs are and how bad those overloaded with caseloads public defenders find themselves in this situation.

    So we focus in on Missouri because it is one of the least — one of the — rather, the worst funded systems in the country, and also because the public defenders there are among the most overwhelmed.

    And we met one, a guy named Jeff Esparza, who told us in his office there just how bad the system is right now.

  • Jeff Esparza:

    I'm at 150 percent of my maximum possible ethical caseload, basically meaning that, if I worked a 60-hour week, which would be a fairly modest week, for the next year-and-a-half and didn't get a single new case, that I could do the bare minimum to ethically represent the clients I currently serve.

  • Frank Carlson:

    Judy, these public defenders, they go into this line of work because they want to represent some of the people in society with the least amount of voice, people who are poor and criminally accused.

    And what ends up happening, though, is, they end up with so many cases, that they can't do the job that they want to do for these clients. And so they — they're in this position where they have to essentially raise the alarm on their own profession, on their own failings.

    And so that's one of the first things that kind of struck me about this story, was how willing public defenders were to say, I'm failing these clients, and how I can't do the job under these circumstances.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So what happens to these — the people you highlight in your reporting? What does the criminal justice system do with them?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Yes, the ripple effects of those public defenders being so overwhelmed are far and wide.

    And one of the most immediate impacts, one of the harshest impacts, I think we could also say, is longer jail times for the defendants. And that's before they have ever been tried or convicted of anything.

    Imagine if you're arrested and you're charged with a crime, you're held in jail. If you can't afford a lawyer, you probably can't afford bail either. And because the public defenders are so overwhelmed, some of those defendants wait in jail for days or weeks or months before the public defender has the time to turn to their case.

    And we met someone as part of this podcast series, a man named Kevin Shepard, who was in exactly that situation. He was arrested, he was charged with a crime, but his as public defender wasn't able to turn to his case for 118 days. He spent 118 days in jail. He was already sick when he went in. He got sicker in the overcrowded conditions there.

    And, Judy, even though his public defender eventually got him out, before he could ever have his day in court, Kevin Shepard ended up passing away. That's just one way in which it's impacting people.

  • Frank Carlson:

    And, Judy, you can think of that as kind of the acute crisis in the system, the people who are spending day after day, week after week in jail, like Amna said, not convicted of anything.

    And that's a real problem, because these people are — they're missing their lives. They're missing their work. They're not paying rent. Many are parents. So that's the acute crisis.

    But this plays out in a lot of other different ways. And one other way is the investigation, what public defenders can't do for their clients in terms of investigating their cases.

    And when we first started reporting this story last year, I learned about a man who is kind of the worst-case scenario of how that can play out for a defendant in this system.

  • Ricky Kidd:

    I do believe I'm in prison today because of the Missouri state public defender system.

    I think, if these things would have been flushed out years ago, 23 years ago, that we would not be having this conversation today.

    This notion that somebody is going to get represented if he's poor or indigent, and represented properly, that's — that's a false notion.

  • Frank Carlson:

    So, in 1997, Ricky Kidd was convicted of a double homicide, and he's always maintained that he had nothing to do with that crime.

    But because he had a public defender who was working in this overworked system, and didn't have time to investigate his case and represent him properly, he spent more than two decades trying to prove what he says she should have proved all along.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And Ricky's story is just one of many that we feature in that podcast.

    Judy, it's basically a deep dive into a part of our criminal justice system that often gets overlooked. But these are the folks on the front lines, the public defenders.

    So, episode one is out now. And episodes are going to drop every Wednesday for the next month.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, as you say, one of many cases in Missouri, one of many states that have a very similar issue with these public defenders.

  • Frank Carlson:

    That's absolutely right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Thank you both very much, Amna and Frank.

  • Frank Carlson:

    Thank you, Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And looking forward to hearing more of the series.

    If you want to listen to this podcast, there are several ways you can download it. You can go to the "Broken Justice" link that is on our Web site. You can also find episodes on Apple Podcasts, on Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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