Our Graduates - Henry County Public Defenders
|Front row: Christina Slate, Laura Frazier
Back Row: Matt Clark, Andy Hynes, Michael McPheeters
The Henry County Public Defenders Office in Martinsville, Va., is now home to five W&L law alumni: Michael McPheeters '07L, Matthew Clark '01L, Laura Frazier '08L, Christina Slate '07L and its newest addition, Andrew Hynes '09L.
Their reasons for joining the office are varied. Slate began in private practice and was miserable, Hynes sought a work-life balance and McPheeters wanted to work for the underdog. For Frazier, it was serendipity. "I started because the office was hiring, and I needed a job," she said. "The wonderful thing is that now I can't imagine myself doing anything else. I am actually surprised I didn't think about criminal law as a career in the first place."
Southwest Virginia, where unemployment hovers at around 22 percent, needs their skills. As Hynes explained, "Here in Martinsville/ Henry County, the majority of my clients either worked in manufacturing or are the children of manufacturing laborers. Since most of that industry closed in the late '90s, many have found themselves forced to the breaking point by a total lack of employment opportunity, coupled with a lack of education. My typical client did not finish high school, and the most surprising thing is how ignorant most are of their basic rights."
The obstacles are many and start with broken homes and high-crime neighborhoods and the need for drug rehabilitation and mental health services. "While not all of my clients commit crimes because they are poor, it is a significant factor for many of them," noted Frazier. "Once they are in the system, the cycle is easily continued. A client who comes in for a basic speeding ticket is left with a fine and court costs to pay. If they do not pay these fines, the license is suspended. At this point, if they are lucky enough to have a job in this economy, they no longer have a license to drive themselves there in order to make money to pay off their fines. And if they do drive and get caught, they are faced with mandatory jail time that will likely result in the loss of their job. It's easy, I feel, for the general public to perceive our clients as general ne'er-do-wells who have no respect for authority. In reality, many are just people who just can't seem to get out of the cycle."
The other major obstacle these public defenders face is the sheer amount of resources arrayed against their clients. "While each case has an attorney representing the interests of the client and an attorney for the commonwealth, the commonwealth's attorneys have a large advantage in the support of their staff," explained Hynes. "From victim/ witness programs to the police force, my clients face a small army of individuals working toward their conviction. In order to overcome this, I frequently resort to one of the most important lessons taught to W&L studentsórespect. By being candid and respectful with opposing counsel, I'm able to far more effectively represent my client's interests than if I aggressively cross-examined every witness brought to the stand."
Another problem is sometimes the client's attitude. "There is the challenge of not being taken seriously because of the title 'public defender,' with all of the stereotypes that come with it," said Fraizer. "Sadly, the worst offenders are usually the clients. I find that the best way to blaze through this is to do the very best I can for each and every client. Hopefully, I can change the perspective of a few people and what it means to be a public defender."
Slate added, "They often have preconceived notions of public defendersóthat we are only doing this because we couldn't get a real job, that we don't care about their case, that we are in cahoots with the state. Obviously, that couldn't be further from the truth. When I get that vibe from a client, I just try to reassure him that I am on his side and that I am very capable." As public service lawyers, they find their greatest resources come from their legal education. Said Slate, "I consider myself very fortunate to have had the opportunity to study under the late Professor Roger Groot. He literally wrote the book on criminal defense in Virginia. The way I think about and prepare for cases today is the way he taught me to think about and prepare for cases. In my third year, I was lucky enough to be a member of VC3, under the guidance of David Bruck. David taught us to challenge the status quo, to fight the good fight. I also owe a great deal to Professor Scott Sundby. His Constitutional Criminal Procedure class is a must for anyone considering a career in criminal law."
Fraizer, who worked with the Black Lung Clinic and Phi Alpha Delta, said, "The work ethic I established while doing community service projects in Lexington has helped me transition seamlessly into the professional world. I feel confident in my abilities to research and examine a problem and use those skills regularly to help my clients."
Hynes also found his clinical experiences at W&L taught him the skills he uses most in his career. "It was the semesters I spent in the Tax Clinic that prepared me for the reality of living life at or below the poverty line. Without that experience, I think I would take much more for granted on the part of my clients. Now, I double-check to make sure that nothing I'm asking for is impossible."
They admit that seeing the same clients over and over again can be demoralizing. But they are the only advocate many of these people have, and as public defenders, their relationships with judges, police officers and commonwealth's attorneys help level the playing field. The fulfillment comes, said McPheeters, "when I get the opportunity to positively affect someone's life, such as helping a habitual offender get their driver's license back, keeping a young person from getting their first felony or crafting a plea agreement that will allow a client to serve in the military."
Hynes said, "For me, the best part is when going the extra mile for a client pays huge dividends. When talking to the witness you didn't think mattered or calling their family at home reveals a fact that literally changes the direction of the case and allows my client to get just treatment, rather than just be punitively punished. I also enjoy helping the families of my clients find alternatives to incarceration, as it seems more than half of my caseload concerns individuals with drug and alcohol abuse problems."
An upside, of course, is having fellow alumni around. "While it makes the atmosphere more congenial, I think our shared mission binds us more than our alumni status," said Slate. "Sure, we have a good time reminiscing about our shared experiences in Lexington, but we spend more time talking about cases."
But the best part is, said Fraizer, "coming to work every day to protect the Constitution. I can't imagine a better way to spend my 9 to 5."