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The Empathist

A Day in the Life of a Public Defender

Photography by Devon Sessoms

On the second floor of a downtown government building, in an office just big enough for a desk, Petra Gross is stuffing manila case folders into her shoulder bag and reaching for a suit jacket. It’s 8 a.m. on a Friday in early November, and court starts in an hour.

Thirty-two and tall, with designer-style glasses and a sleek black dress, Gross is an assistant public defender in the Dauphin County Public Defender’s office. She joined the office after graduating from the Dickinson School of Law in 2010 and has since maintained a hectic, often six-days-a-week schedule as legal counsel for those who can’t afford it.

Walking across the street to Dauphin County Courthouse, Gross reviews her morning list of clients. Several will be wearing prison jumpsuits, hands shackled at their waist and guarded closely by armed sheriffs. Others will be taking the day off work, hoping to resolve offenses like driving under the influence and unauthorized use of property. In each case, Gross enforces her client’s rights by attempting to reduce charges, dismiss them outright or negotiate the best deal possible for her clients.

“It’s not my job to judge who’s bad,” she says, matter-of-factly. “It’s what the DA can prove.” The DA, or district attorney, is the perpetual adversary of the public defender – though in-person the two camps are friendly. The Dauphin County Courthouse is filled with the graduates of Dickinson Law School and Widener Law School, and it’s not uncommon to see attorneys who were recent classmates now arguing against one another in court.

Gross reaches the courthouse at 8:22 a.m, where she greets a security guard by name and passes through a metal detector. After a quick elevator ride to the third floor, Gross exits and makes her way toward Courtroom No. 4. The hallways are nearly full as Gross waves to several clients before ducking into the empty courtroom.

Courtroom No. 4 is a looming indoor cavern of dark wood and marble, an imposing place of hard edges where quotes from 16th century Anglican philosophers consume entire walls. Above, a soaring 20-foot ceiling undulates like a series of small waves momentarily frozen, as sunlight pours through a sidewall of windows. It’s cinematically beautiful, but for those who’ve been charged, this is where “the system” truly begins.

Leaving her bag on a chair, Gross hurries back outside to the hallway where her first client is waiting. She’s a middle-aged woman, fidgety and eager to speak. She explains her situation: that a recent death in her family caused her to go out, drink and unfortunately drive home. But she was arrested before she made it. Gross listens, then starts with the bad news first.

“I still don’t have the lab report,” Gross tells the woman.

“Ugh, I don’t believe it,” says the woman, her shoulders falling. “Now I have to come back again. Take another day off work.” She shakes her head, distraught. “I can’t keep doing this.”

“I can get you finished today,” says Gross. “But you’ll lose your license. And I don’t want you to lose your license before the holidays.”

Gross recommends seeking a continuance, allowing her time to review all the evidence before making a legal recommendation. In the interim, the woman can keep her license and continue driving to work. Later, the woman says the real scandal here is “how broken the whole system is. How it’s all about the money. About brining people back into the system, back to court again and again until the boss won’t let you come back, or you’ll get fired.”

When a client is powerless, even admittedly in the wrong, it’s the public defender who often absorbs the venting and frustration. “Sometimes they take it out on us,” says Gross. “Because they can’t take it out on anyone else.” Gross copes by searching for the humanity behind each client. “I don’t know that I’ve ever had a case that’s irredeemable,” she says. “There’s always some story behind it. Always a reason. And that brings out the humanity.”

Gross’s empathy, whether ingrained through professional repetition or encoded at birth, does not waver during a madcap day of courtroom wrangling, questioning and high-stakes deal-making with a half-dozen assistant district attorneys. She views the world through an ever-focused lens of defensive advocacy, drawing on her ability to empathize, understand and compassionately guide clients through a complex legal system many do not understand.

Guiding has factored large in Gross’s life. Prior to law school, Gross worked as lead instructor for the New York City chapter of Outward Bound, a popular nonprofit organization, which – in addition to helping students change their lives through challenge and discovery – offers customized courses for struggling teens. Of the many values that make up Outward Bound’s philosophy, its first is compassion.

Gross notes that several of her public defender colleagues are first-generation attorneys, drawn to indigent defense for any number of reasons, but usually not as a launching pad for careers in politics and public service. The trajectory of district attorneys, however, has historically led to positions of grander visibility. Power broker and former Pennsylvania Attorney General LeRoy S. Zimmerman, former Governor Tom Ridge and current Governor Tom Corbett all began their careers in a district attorney’s office.

As the courtroom opens to the public and defendants stream inside, Gross watches the church-like pews fill with her office’s clients. She stands and begins working the room, moving from client to client, joined by three more public defenders scrambling to speak with as many clients as possible during this legal waypoint. Gross spends several minutes with each client – laying out roadmaps for the day’s proceedings – while a group of assistant district attorneys gathers at the opposing table like a competing debate team awaiting the judge.

Blue-shirted sheriffs, armed at the hip, pace slowly around the courtroom making their presence known. Then, from a door usually reserved for a jury, the morning’s first prisoner suddenly appears wearing a green Dauphin County Prison jumpsuit. Gross turns to the man, waves and approaches with a notepad as a newly arrived sheriff sits nearby to supervise.

“Hi,” Gross says to the prisoner. “Remember me?”

“Petra?” says the prisoner, nodding. “Yeah, I’ve just never seen you before.”

Gross sits beside him and quickly explains his options, which includes a guilty plea colloquy that locks in his charges and maximum penalties. Gross has made a deal with the DA that reduces the man’s sentence to 30 days in prison, and now her client must plead guilty to accept it. Seeing the reduced charge and sentencing, he agrees and Gross moves on.

In the precious 30 minutes before the judge arrives, the courtroom feels like Grand Central Station at rush hour. Defendants arrive like an endless supply of trains from the outside world, with public defenders and district attorneys playing the role of train dispatchers, shuttling defendants off to treatment programs, prison or immediate release back to society. It’s a human and distinctly imperfect system, yet arguably the best devised by mankind.

To even the casual observer, class and racial divides become immediately apparent. Courtroom staff, public defenders and district attorneys are overwhelmingly white and middle class, educated and dressed in professional attire. Defendants are predominantly the opposite. Drug and alcohol abuse is often the tie that binds defendants, followed by firearms offenses and general violence.

At two minutes after 9 a.m., the Honorable Judge Richard A. Lewis sweeps into the courtroom to the cry of “All rise.” Elected to the bench in 1993, Lewis is a grand older man of the law with neatly parted, porcelain white hair and a carefully trimmed salt-and-pepper mustache. His authority is unquestioned, and for a moment, the courtroom is silent. Lewis sits in his black robe and smiles broadly at those before him, then the courtroom returns to it’s bustling train-station atmosphere.

An assistant DA turns to the court and calls the name and case number of the first defendant. Trailed by a sheriff, a muscular young man in an orange jumpsuit rises, makes his way past several inmates and approaches the front of the courtroom where he stands squarely between a public defender and the prosecuting assistant DA.

The defendant is accused of breaking into lockers at Planet Fitness in Lower Paxton Township and stealing petty cash. He made off with about $100, says the assistant DA, as Lewis patiently listens. The defendant, like many who follow, stares at the floor while his accusations are read aloud. With a deal in place, he is remanded to a program called Teen Challenge, a nonprofit that provides youth with Christian faith-based solutions to drug and alcohol problems. If he’s accepted, Judge Lewis will grant immediate release from prison, favoring a rehabilitative program versus simple incarceration.

Lewis wishes the prisoner good luck as he shuffles back to his seat. One down, and many more to go. The Dauphin County District Attorney’s office handles over 6,500 cases per year in the County Court of Common Pleas, which, on an average year of 260 work days, divides into 25 cases per day, 3.125 cases per hour or one case every 19.2 minutes. Today’s proceedings move even faster.

Next up: a West Perry man, 33 years old, in a green prison jumpsuit. He’s a former Navy enlisted sailor, father to a young daughter and one of Gross’s clients. Hands cuffed to a link chain around his waist, he stands between Gross and the assistant DA, awaiting his fate while a sheriff loiters behind him.

“Sir, you have before you what is called a guilty plea colloquy,” says the assistant DA. “Do you understand you’re giving up significant rights?”

“Yes, sir,” says the man.

Gross has already petitioned for parole and work release, and after the attorneys have settled on a resolution, Lewis addresses the defendant directly.

“So what’s going on?” Lewis asks.

“I knew I shouldn’t have been driving,” says the man, “and I did anyway. I shouldn’t have let the vehicle lapse either, that was irresponsible.”

“You have a drug problem?” Lewis says. “Describe your drug problem.”

“It’s prescription drugs.”

“What kind of drugs?”

“Oxycodone.”

“Have you gone to treatment?”

“Yes, back in Williamsport in 2012.”

“Didn’t work very well, did it?”

“Well, it did help,” the man allows.

Lewis looks down at his case notes, appearing to sigh. The man before him is a military veteran who’s acknowledged his problem and appears intent on improving. In a clear voice, Lewis announces a sentence of no less than 30 days in prison and no more than six months.

“You’ll be eligible for work release, but because you’re in for such a short time, they’ll be reluctant to take you,” explains Lewis.

The defendant nods gratefully.

“Thank you sir, good luck,” says Lewis, as the man leaves and another takes his place. The train station of justice hurries along. Each story is uniquely sad: a former “highly compensated” Ahold executive who lost his job and was arrested for DUI; a 20-year-old pregnant woman, already a mother, who works part-time at Taco Bell and allegedly assaulted her fiance’s ex-wife; a young man, who appears no older than a boy, brought before the judge on three first-class felony charges.

As each case is argued, the sidebar conversations of attorneys and clients and the thrum of courtroom deal-making never ceases. When not before the judge, Gross walks freely around the courtroom, conferring with clients in the back pews while other clients are sentenced up front. Gradually the volume of the courtroom rises until Lewis says, “I’m sorry folks, can we keep it down to a mild roar so I can hear?”

The most shocking case of the morning involves a young woman in her 20s with a streak of dye-colored hair and a tattoo running down the back of her neck. She had arrived that morning of her own volition, a free woman from the outside world. And as she waits for her time before Lewis, her attorney sits next to her and explains the possible penalties if she goes to trial.

Holding a sheaf of papers that includes a guilty plea with a reduced sentence, the attorney explains that “with these charges, you’ll be facing 27 years in jail and $40,000 in fines if you lose.” The young woman doesn’t react, perhaps from shock. It’s the biggest conversation of her life, she’s having it in public, surrounded by a dozen other defendants, and she needs to decide now. The attorney holds a pen next to the deal, and within seconds the woman says she’ll sign.

The attorney flips through the paperwork, with the woman scribbling her signature on the appropriate lines. A short while later, she’s brought before Lewis, pleads guilty and a sheriff steps behind her, placing her tiny wrists in handcuffs. She’s summarily escorted from the courtroom and transported to prison after court adjourns. Public defenders attempt to prevent these abrupt transitions from free citizen to jailed inmate, but when the charges demand it, law enforcement does not hesitate.

The population of Courtroom No. 4 dwindles over the next three hours. At one point, an assistant DA asks aloud if anyone in the court has anything else. After a few late arrivals, court officially adjourns at 11:34 a.m., and just as he swept in, Judge Lewis departs the courtroom through a side exit. Gross grabs her shoulder bag and, before heading to lunch, takes the elevator downstairs to file a document with the clerk of courts.

The morning’s proceedings have generated vast quantities of paperwork, which must be filed, photocopied when necessary and archived for later use by both the district attorney’s and public defender’s office. Gross says being an attorney is largely a job of customer service and communication, and as an attorney who regularly argues before judges, she must demonstrate a persuasive facility in both spoken and written word.

Returning to her office on 2nd Street, Gross offers a quick tour along the building’s narrow hallways that house nearly two dozen public defenders. Unlike district attorneys, each public defender serves as the sole representative of his or her client, and thus requires the private quarters to accommodate attorney-client privilege. For this reason, public defenders can’t share offices, which accounts for the very long rows of very tiny offices.

Grabbing a miniature chocolate bar off her desk, Gross walks several blocks to Neato Burrito where she orders lunch to-go. Along the way, she explains why so many of the public defenders and district attorneys appear so relatively young. “The burnout tends to keep staffs young,” she says. “There’s only so long that attorneys are willing to work six days a week.”

When exhaustion sets in, Gross draws on empathy (and a self-estimated 40 ounces of coffee per day). “On the days when I’m tired, I think: ‘If this client was my family member, how would I want their public defender to work?’ So the pressure is self-imposed. I don’t want to miss anything.” After lunch, Gross returns to her office and prepares for the drive to Colonial Park where she’ll spend the afternoon arguing before Magisterial District Judge Joseph A. Lindsey.

Following a quick car ride, Gross arrives at a small and nondescript brick building off Route 22, where she parks her Honda Civic and reaches for her shoulder bag freshly stuffed with new case folders. Today is “criminal day” for Judge Lindsey. It’s the first opportunity for the agents of the legal system – police officers, public defenders, district attorneys, witnesses and victims if necessary – to come together and review the allegations against a defendant.

The waiting room is filled with defendants, and none are happy. Established in 1968, the Magisterial District Judge System hears cases involving traffic violations, landlord and tenant disputes and civil matters up to $12,000. The system also holds initial jurisdiction over all criminal cases, serving as an early filtration layer for sending cases “downtown” to the likes of Judge Lewis for further action.

Inside the tiny courtroom, with its drop ceiling and fluorescent lighting, the setting is more municipal conference room than imposing venue of justice. There are two Lower Paxton police officers sitting just behind the prosecution’s table, manned by Assistant District Attorney Codi Tucker. At the opposing table is Senior Public Defender Mike Duda, wearing a crisp suit and advising his client, currently a prisoner in a red D.C.P jumpsuit accused of rape. “You don’t talk to anyone about your case but me,” Duda tells him. “There’s snitches in there that will snitch their mothers out.”

Only in a courtroom does one find this intimate, shoulder-to-shoulder collection of uniformed men and women carrying guns, professionally dressed men and women holding juris doctor degrees and jumpsuit-dressed men and women wearing handcuffs and waist chains. Gross drops off her bag and introduces herself to a newly arrived police officer who’s just arrived from prison with Gross’s first client. She disappears into a small conference room to confer with him privately.

The right to an attorney, granted by the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution, and drilled into the public consciousness most weeknights by prime-time police dramas, gives all defendants the right to legal counsel when charged with a crime. It does not provide free legal counsel if the defendant can afford to pay. In Pennsylvania, defendants must fall below established poverty levels to apply for and be accepted by the public defender’s office. Upon acceptance, the state will pay all expenses for a dedicated public defender, but will not pay fines, court costs or the cost of treatment programs.

At 2:11 p.m., District Judge Joseph A. Lindsey enters the courtroom and begins the afternoon session. Powered by a recent coffee run, Gross continues her energetic defensive advocacy in mirror image of her morning performance. Whenever possible, she makes deals with Assistant DA Tucker, or seeks to reduce charges, dismiss them outright or build up her clients in the judge’s view in hopes of gaining a lesser sentence.

Lindsey, a former Lower Paxton police officer of 12 years, runs his courtroom with equal parts respect, professionalism and humor. When a novice attorney “asks to approach,” Lindsey asks if the attorney is carrying a gun. Like Judge Lewis, there’s not much he hasn’t seen from the bench. Yet both judges treat defendants with dignity, agreeing to alternative treatment programs where applicable, warning others of consequences should they continue their behavior and, in certain cases, they take a genuine paternal interest in the defendants brought before them.

When a client doesn’t show up for a hearing, Lindsey calmly orders a bench warrant for his arrest, ensuring that one day the client will show up in handcuffs. By 4:10 p.m., after extensive legal wrangling over a young male defendant charged with public drunkenness, Lindsey steps in to untangle a miscommunication between an assistant DA and the public defender’s newly licensed law clerk – currently overseen by Gross.

The issue revolves around the defendant paying a booking fee of $300, which cannot be waived, and after a long Friday filled with arguing, preceded by four long days of additional arguing, Lindsey identifies the miscommunication and clears the way for a deal both sides can live with.

“Is he out there?” asks Lindsey, referring to the defendant.

A young man is brought inside and sits. Lindsey explains the deal to the young man, who agrees to it on the spot. “You are free to go,” he tells him. “Please change your lifestyle, alright?” The young man nods. “Good luck to you,” says Lindsey, with the air of a man expecting change, and thus concludes the day’s proceedings with Lindsey wishing the attorneys well and slipping out his private exit.

Driving back to Harrisburg in rush hour traffic, Gross says her success stories are the clients she never hears from again. With so many cases involving drug and alcohol abuse, Gross understands that treating defendants is more time consuming and expensive, but in her experience, it’s also more effective than jail. She’s proud to list Dauphin County’s progressive slate of programs including Veteran’s Court, Mental Health Court and Drug Court, which are dedicated to helping specific individuals who may need treatment more than punishment.

It’s 5 p.m. when Gross gets back to downtown Harrisburg. The hallways are empty, the phones are silent and Gross’s westward facing office is rendered glaringly bright from a low setting sun. She glances at her phone on the windowsill, where five voicemails now sit waiting. Her inbox also needs attention. It’s Friday evening, and Gross wants to be driving home, listening to National Public Radio and taking her new puppy for a walk before tucking in with a movie from Netflix.

But the administrative duties cannot wait, and public defenders don’t have full-time individual secretaries (there are three secretaries for approximately 24 public defenders). In a private firm, these functions would be handled automatically. Gross would have an assistant or a paralegal, but instead of freeing a woman from jail to attend her child’s surgery – as Gross did earlier in the day – she would be focused on “getting her billables.” Instead of arguing all day in court, responding dynamically to questions from judges and adapting on-the-fly to competing assistant DAs, she would be reviewing contracts 10 hours a day in a bigger, quieter, perhaps fancier office – and maybe she’d drive a nicer car.

It’s no secret that public defenders, paid for by the government, earn far less than the generous salaries enjoyed by their private attorney contemporaries. But after spending the day with Gross, it seems she takes her payment in the bond of daily battle, in thinking and fighting on her feet and in finding the humanity behind every defendant.

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