Public defenders resume taking indigent cases

Prosecutors threatened to sue public defenders

Missouri public defenders have decided to resume taking indigent cases after Missouri prosecutors last Wednesday threatened to sue the Missouri Public Defender System.

Platte County Prosecuting Attorney Eric G. Zahnd, who is president of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, said the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys notified the Missouri Public Defender System last Wednesday that it intended to file a lawsuit to block the public defenders’ actions if the state agency continued to refuse appointments to criminal cases.

“Missouri State Auditor Tom Schweich’s audit of the public defender system,” Zahnd said, “uncovered the truth that the public defender system’s caseload protocol is based on ‘unsupported assumptions’ and uses a ‘bad baseline’ that ‘will overstate their workload.’ The audit also found significant management problems with the system, leading Auditor Schweich to say that ‘these wasteful policies are a sizable burden on taxpayers, who have to absorb these unnecessary costs.’”

Zahnd said since the public defender system has decided to resume providing representation to indigent criminal defendants as required by law, the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys “will hold off filing its lawsuit.”

Cathy R. Kelly, director of the Office of State Public Defender, said the decision to resume taking indigent cases came before the lawsuit was threatened by prosecutors last Wednesday.

Kelly said the Public Defender Commission met last Friday, “They decided that instead of insisting on this line-in-the-sand approach, we are going to take the approach of sitting down with prosecutors, judges and other stake holders in the criminal justice system and try to come up with reasonable ways to address the case overload that are not chaotic for the courts or for the private bar,” Kelly said.

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