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Jax Daily Record Wednesday, Aug. 21, 200212:00 PM EST

Profile: Public Defender's Office

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The Public Defender’s Office is responsible for representing indigents who have been accused of a crime. The office is under the direction of Public Defender Louis Frost.

WHAT DO THESE CASES ENTAIL?

“That encompasses everything from petty theft and trespassing all the way to first-degree murder,” said Louis Frost. “It involves juveniles who are alleged to be delinquent children as well as people with mental health problems who may have to be committed to an institution. We also represent persons in felonies, misdemeanors, capital cases, appeals to the County Court, appellate proceedings and we now represent people after they have finished their term sentence in a sexual charge and the State Attorney’s Office has determined they are a sexual predator. Under the Jimmy Ryce Act, we represent them when they can’t afford counsel in a civil trial to determine whether they are a violent sexual predator and should be confined for treatment.”

WHAT DOES LOU FROST DO?

“I’m CEO of the Public Defender’s Office. The buck stops here at my desk.” The public defender is a constitutional office. Frost was appointed to the position in 1968 and has been elected nine times without opposition. “The lawyers in this town, for whatever reason, have seen fit not to run against me. I think they think I’m doing a good job. I hope that is the reason or they respect me for the job I have done. I set the policy for how I want the office to operate and travel to Tallahassee when the budget is coming up. The funding of this office has become a major responsibility; to see that we get properly funded. Our budget is over $8 million. I have to make sure that budget is properly accounted for, spent in the taxpayers interest and that the salaries are set.”

WHO VISITS YOUR OFFICE?

Clients, witnesses and the general public. A lot of people come into the office looking for help. Many are redirected to the Legal Aid or Children and Family Services. “We direct them to where they need to go. Last year we represented approximately 26,000 cases.”

WHAT DOES THE OFFICE DO?

“It contains all my lawyers and investigative staff. The state is divided into judicial circuits and this is the 4th Judicial Circuit. Its main office is in Jacksonville, but I also have jurisdiction in Clay and Nassau counties. I have to constantly make sure that those offices are operating at the same standards that I want my office to operate. It is a big administrative job to supervise all the different areas in the offices.”

HOW ARE THE CASES DIVIDED?

Cases are divided into Circuit Court, special defense, Jimmy Ryce, Baker acts/domestic, appeals, juvenile, County Court, Nassau County and Clay County.

WHO’s IN CHARGE?

Frost is the public defender, Bill White is the chief assistant public defender and Ann Finnell is the circuit coordinator.

WHO ARE THE PUBLIC DEFENDERS?

Shelley Wiggins, Pat Kyser, Amy Grass-Gilmore, Debra Billard, Melina Buncome-Williams, Waffa Hanania, Mary Hickson, Shands Wulbern, Bruce Culbert, Valerie Limoge, Derrick Smith, Joe DeBelder, Al Perkins, Rhonda Waters, Michelle Kalil, Bryan Neal, David Taylor, Tim Armstrong, Erin McCarty, Laurie Sistrunk, Amy McGuiness, Matt Shirk, Casey Stripling, Greg Mossore, Lara Nezami, Jill Barger, Lois Ragsdale, Sandra Young, Frank Shoemaker, Pat McGuinness, Gonzalo Andux, Cynthia Hunold, Ward Metzger, Lisa Steely, Rob Mason, Sissy Adam-Jones, Katy Aguilar, Don Jaffe, Ian Weldon, Jenna Witte, Al Chipperfield, Lewis Buzzell, Susan Yazgi, Chris Moser, Rachael Greene, David Cronin, Owen Schmidt, Michael Bateh, Jan Abel, Mark Wright, Alison Graham, Grace VanHouten, Rita Walker, Davis Love, Will Durden, Dan Brim, Courtenay Miller, Chris Clayton, Brian Morrissey, Valerie Faltemier, Curt Davidson, Susan Lewis, Ted Hellmuth and Kelly Papa.

WHAT DOES BILL WHITE DO?

The assistant public defender is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the office. He is also the division chief for homicide and the district supervisor for appeals.

HIGH TURNOVER?

“We had a high turnover last year. We lost about 14 lawyers. Overall, we have a good retention rate of our people who have time and grade in service. We have senior lawyers who have been here for a long time and are mentors and good resources for the newer lawyers. We try to get a three-year commitment from the young lawyers. They usually jump ship anywhere from two to five years.”

CAREER ORIENTED OFFICE?

“It does serve as somewhat of a career motivation because we are vested after six years. We have disability and health benefits for the lawyers. It’s better than it was, though our lawyers are still not paid what private practitioners are. Our starting salary is $36,000 a year and that wasn’t until recently.”

STIGMA TO THE OFFICE?

“This is probably universal in the public defender system. When you go and put your money down with a private practitioner, you are paying up front for their advice and you expect to get in return what you are paying for. We have the stigma that is built into the system that we are paid for by the State and the State Attorney’s Office is paid by the State. There is the impression that we may be in the same pot with them, are part of the State and are just there to see that the cases are disposed of. They think we are part of the system and therefore we are not looking out for their best interest. That is probably the toughest thing about this whole job; not trying to convince the public, but trying to gain the trust of our clients. We have to try to let them know that we are on their side and that we may be paid for by the State, but that we work for them. They only way we can do that is by seeing them, communicating with them — letting them talk to you and you talking to them.”

WHAT DO YOU WANT YOUR CLIENTS TO KNOW?

“We are their lawyers. Our job is to see that everyone we represent gets the best possible defense and the best possible disposition that can be theirs and is allowable under the law. We are there to protect their best interest. Sometimes that is an easy task, but other times it is very difficult.”

ALUMNI TO THE PUBLIC DEFENDER’S OFFICE?

Former mayor Ed Austin, District Court judges Henry Adams and Ralph Nimmons Jr., Florida Supreme Court Justice Leander Shaw Jr., State Attorney Harry Shorstein and Circuit Court judges Charlie Mitchell, L. Haldane Taylor, John Skinner, Peter Fryefield and Gregg McCaulie.

FAMOUS CASES?

The most famous was the case of Ernest John Dobbert. Frost argued that case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court and calls it the highlight of his career. Dobbert was accused of torturing his two children to death. Though the bodies were never found and there were no witnesses, Dobbert was convicted and later executed. His office recently defended Brenton Butler, who was wrongly accused of murdering a Georgia woman at a motel on the Southside. Butler was acquitted amid allegations of police brutality.

WHERE’S THE OFFICE?

The entire office — except for Clay and Nassau counties — is currently housed at 25 N. Market St.

NEW COURTHOUSE?

When the new Duval County Courthouse is built, the office will not be located there. It will be in the old United States Courthouse along with the State Attorney’s Office.

DOES HE TRY CASES?

No. He has not tried a case in about 20 years.

WHAT PROCESS DOES A PUBLIC DEFENDER GO THROUGH TO GET HIRED?

“I interview every attorney that is ever hired in this office. We will interview anyone who sends us an application. They go through the hiring committee. If they recommend that the person be interviewed by Mr. White, then he will interview them. He, or the hiring committee, can reject the applicants before they ever get to me. If all people favorably agree, the applicant will be presented to me for an interview. I will take a look at them after I look at their resumes, past employment, if they are a member in good standing with the Bar, references and writing samples. I give the final stamp of approval on all attorneys hired.”

GOOD EXPERIENCE?

“Working for the Public Defender’s Office or the State Attorney’s Office is the best training that any young lawyer could get if they want to do trial practice, whether it be civil or criminal. They can hone their skills in these two offices because they will get trial experience. In a private practice, they will sit around and shadow a lawyer, do research and motion practice and they are not going to get to try those high profile cases.”

HOW CAN YOU DEFEND SOMEONE YOU KNOW IS GUILTY?

“We don’t deal with guilt or innocence. We deal with trying to represent our client as best we can in all possible circumstances. If our client tells us they are not guilty, that doesn’t mean we don’t go in there and try to negotiate if we feel the person has committed the offense. We try to negotiate the best possible disposition for them; they can accept it or reject it. It is their right to have a lawyer, to plead guilty or not guilty and to trial by jury or to waive that trial.”

WHAT TYPE OF PERSON MAKES A GOOD PUBLIC DEFENDER?

“People who are committed to helping the underdog and have a dedication to doing this type of work. Sometimes they find out six months down the road that they can’t handle that stuff, while others love the challenge. I look for people that are loyal, dedicated, have a backbone, want to fight for underdog, are a self-starter, team player and aggressive, but yet tempered to the point that they are not overbearing and someone who is not intimidated by judges or prosecutors. It’s a tough job and you have to be thick-skinned.”

HOW MUCH INTERACTION DO YOU HAVE WITH YOUR PUBLIC DEFENDERS?

“As much as I can. Especially with the young ones that come on board. They have a meeting once a week and I try to pop in there and see what’s going on. My door is always open if they want to come in and ask questions.”

THE DIFFICULTIES OF BEING A PUBLIC DEFENDER?

“it’s a very difficult job to be a public defender or a criminal defense lawyer. It’s a much more of a motion practice. You have to make the proper objections at trial or else they don’t stand up on appeal if your client gets convicted. You have to be on your toes and you have to humanize your client before a jury and make them feel like this is a real human being, not just somebody sitting there accused of a crime. You really have to persuade the jury that this client is presumed innocent and that they have to find him guilty. He’s not guilty just because he is sitting there.”

— by Michele Newbern Gillis

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