By Alison Frutoz
As a public defender for the last 25 years, every day I have walked into the Douglas County courthouse on the side of Truth. Our courthouse has three entrances. My office enters the courthouse under the word “Truth;” the District Attorney’s Office is on the side marked “Justice.” It has always struck me as funny — and revealing — that Justice and Truth do not share the same side. I think most people would expect that truth and justice would work together in our court system, but as public defenders we quickly learn this is more often the exception than the rule.
As we stand on the eve of the 60th anniversary of the U. S. Supreme Court’s decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, a decision that made clear the constitution’s promise that every person has a right to counsel to aid in their defense, it is only right to look at the hard truths of our legal system, and the important role public defenders play in trying to bring justice closer to the truth.
As defenders, we are often the first to lend an ear to a person’s whole story that brings them from their community and the last to place a caring hand on their shoulder as a sentence is imposed and they are led away. We bear witness to their truths, remembering they too are mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, neighbors and friends; we see beyond the crimes they are charged with and the way others have labeled and defined them. As public defenders, we hear the quiet whispered truths of childhood trauma, and the loud roars of politicians clamoring about public safety that both can pave the way to the courthouse doors.
But it is not just our client’s truths that we are to share. Public defenders also bear witness to systemic inequities and stand to speak the truth about injustice. We witness abuses of those in power and stand to shine the light of truth on government mistakes and misconduct. It is this opportunity to reveal the whole truth, the calling to lend voice to the humanity of every individual, the drive to show there is more to the story than the worst thing a person may have ever done, that leads me to persevere as a public defender.
Today, our criminal justice systems are struggling. With too many cases and too few resources and people to address them, we face catastrophic failure. Our system of plea-bargaining, which prioritizes processing cases while ignoring the people those cases represent, threatens to obliterate the last connections between truth and justice. The public defender’s job is to stand strong at the precipice of failure and refuse to let that occur. Defenders are the glue that can hold our broken system together. As our legal system rushes headlong into virtual courts and video meetings, defenders stand up to advocate for their client’s opportunity to appear in-person so they may fully hear, engage, and see, and be seen in their full humanity in return.
In today’s charged political environment, when we stand up for those on whom society has turned its back, we’re told we’ve turned our backs on justice. But nothing could be further from the truth. To stand up for the accused is to stand up for our communities; to advocate for the humanity of our neighbors is to help the world to see them as we do. There is an essential truth that underpins our criminal legal system: no matter the charges the government brings against you, you are entitled to a zealous advocate by your side.
Alison Frutoz is a public defender in Georgia’s Douglas County.