Carter steps down as public defender


To the Editor:

Years before I had a law degree, I became interested in assisting the indigent with their legal problems.  Since I began serving as public defender in 2007 in our county, I could not tell you how many times a friend or relative, or even a colleague has posed such questions as, “How do you represent those people?” and “Aren’t they all guilty?” I have also heard hurtful and unthoughtful comments such as, “They don’t deserve a lawyer, lock ‘em up and throw away the key!” and “What a waste of taxpayer money; it would be easier to take ‘em out back and shoot ‘em!”

Let me ask you to consider something. What if YOU were charged with a crime that you had not committed? What would be the first thing YOU did? I suspect most of you reading this would pick up the phone and call the best lawyer you could find. Because after all, YOU are being wrongfully accused. YOU haven’t committed a crime. They have the wrong guy or gal. 

It does actually happen, you know? From time to time, the wrong person is arrested. Sometimes the wrong person is even tried and convicted. And even worse, sometimes the wrong person is convicted and sentenced to the death penalty. It has happened in this country too many times to count. In Mississippi alone, the Innocence Project has successfully assisted at least 10 wrongfully convicted people in being exonerated, and in most of those cases, the actual true perpetrators of the crimes have been captured. That is a scary thought isn’t it? Some of those wrongfully convicted individuals spent decades in prison, for crimes they did not commit. 

Back to the hypothetical case where you have been charged with a crime you haven’t committed. Luckily, you had some money saved up and you were able to go out and hire a fine criminal defense attorney. Your case proceeds to trial. It is the scariest thing you have ever gone through. The stakes are high. If you lose at trial, you go to prison. It really is that simple. But your high-dollar attorney does a masterful job and you are acquitted. Not guilty! Hallelujah!! You get to go home and your life can return back to normal.

Let me ask you to consider something else. What if you had not had the funds to hire the attorney that assisted you? What if you had to defend against the false allegations yourself with no assistance from a lawyer? What if the court did appoint you a lawyer, but he or she was unqualified? Another scary thought, I bet.

Luckily, the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, as part of the Bill of Rights, protects you against prosecution without counsel. “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right…. to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.” Simply put, the government cannot prosecute you without a lawyer. It has not always been so clear though, and for years and years, states took the position that they did not have to provide counsel to poor people in non-capital murder cases. It wasn’t until 1963 that the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Gideon v. Wainright that state courts are required under the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to provide counsel in criminal cases to represent defendants who are unable to afford to pay their own attorneys. 

Not only this right to counsel, but the right to effective counsel, is true and dear to my heart. I believe in it fully. I believe that if not for such a right, our government would be free to prosecute and convict anyone they wanted to, especially the poor, and sometimes for the wrong reasons. I have viewed the role of public defender as the last line of defense against wrongful prosecutions. The person without a penny to their name should be entitled to the same defense that a person of great wealth receives. This has been my goal in the years that I have served the people of Attala County (and surrounding counties) — to give the person with little means the same chance at justice that a person of great means receives. Money should make no difference in the administration of justice. 

The public defense system in the state of Mississippi is not uniform and we see a hodgepodge of systems throughout the varying districts in this state. Some work better than others. Some are downright pitiful and that is very sad for those that are caught up in the slow-moving wheels of the criminal justice system. There is very little oversight and, in some cases, very little passion from the appointed lawyers. I get it; most are over-worked and under-paid. I believe that eventually, some steps will be taken to improve this system so that the constitutional rights of so many are protected. Change is slow though. Luckily, Attala County avoids many of the problems I see in other districts. If you are charged with a felony in this county, you will see a judge in the time and manner required by law and, if you are indigent, you will be appointed counsel. Trust me, this does not happen everywhere. It is scary.

I have served as Public Defender in this county for over 12 years now. I have served with pride and passion. It has been my life’s work to this point. To do the job effectively, I think it is necessary to be passionate about it. About three months ago, I felt the fire inside me burning out. It was just creeping into the back of my mind at that time, but as I continued on, I could tell it was real. I was losing my passion for the job. I realize that a public defender without a burning fire and passion for the job can result in great injustice for the accused. I therefore made the decision last month to step away, before my fire was completely burned out. I have resigned, effective July 1, 2019. I am so very appreciative of the opportunity to serve this community, the people I have represented over the years, and the relationships I have forged. I am not going anywhere. I plan to remain here. I want to continue to represent those who need my help. I will, however, be taking on fewer cases through my private practice here in Kosciusko. I hope you all understand.

Richard C. Carter III