A Sept. 11 article in the Missoulian included certain incendiary statements made during a sentencing hearing for sexual assault. These statements did not originate with me, nevertheless, the attributions in the article made me the target of threats of violence to me and my family.
After meeting with the editor and author of the article, a second article (Sept. 17) indeed clarify (as did the court transcripts) that I was not the genesis of the incendiary comment.
My conversation with the Missoulian was an intelligent and lively discourse regarding the challenges that public defenders and reporters face. However, there was no un-ringing the bell; the damage was done.
To this day I walk the streets of Missoula looking over my shoulder, wondering who was the person who told me I "should rot in hell” or that I "don’t deserve to live.” Yet every day, I begin each morning to fulfill a calling.
I am a public defender, and for most of us, this is not just a job. We are passionate about protecting the rights of poor people when the state accuses them of a crime. We are committed to making sure the government honors the fundamental rights to fairness in criminal prosecutions. We don’t do this for fame and certainly not for fortune.
What separates our country from totalitarian regimes like Russia, China or North Korea is our Constitution and its protections for all of us. However reprehensible the people we may represent, we remain the last line of defense against an over-reaching government. Just like a free press, our service is essential to the American democratic process.
Often we stand for unpopular positions and against the court of public opinion. We are not in a popularity contest nor do we serve or oblige people in powerful positions. It is precisely these powerful people we stand against, while standing with our clients. When powerful people and their friends attempt to influence how we defend our clients, we have eviscerated the brilliance of our founding fathers.
Criminal justice is not black and white; it is as varied as the human condition we all share. I understand that some crimes may seem indefensible, but there is nothing repugnant about the principles I represent. Silence never won rights. They are not handed down from above; the right to be free from government oppression is an ongoing battle.
We live in an increasingly fragmented world, which is odd because technology allows us to communicate globally in an instant. Often, opinions are formed before facts can be substantiated. And while we are mandated to separate church and state, common decency compels us to reach out to the least among us; when we embrace the unlovable, our democracy benefits.
We also live in an era where we are frequently reminded to thank others, such as veterans and police officers, for their service. We thank them because they defend our Constitution, our rights and our freedoms as Americans. Just as worthy of thanks are the public defenders.
It is the same Constitution, it is the same flag and all of us are essential to our democracy. It is cowardly to pick up the phone and leave threatening, anonymous messages to someone you don’t agree with; why not be braver? Next time you see a public defender, stop and thank them for their service.