Snow was on the ground and a chill was in the dark air outside the Custom House on King Street. It was March 1770 in Boston, Massachusetts. A crowd of nearly 400 Americans began pelting a group of British soldiers with snowballs and chunks of ice. During the ensuing chaos, the crack of gunfire broke through, leaving five American colonists dead or dying at the hands of occupying British soldiers. In an attempt to stem the political damage, the governor arrested the soldiers involved. A grand jury later indicted them for murder.
We, of course, know this incident as the Boston Massacre. But, following the indictment, there was a problem: no lawyer in Boston would defend the soldiers. And understandably so. Who would want to represent obviously guilty men who, as part of an occupying force, killed American patriots in cold blood? Then onto the scene stepped John Adams.
When we think of John Adams, we think of an influential Founder and the second President of the United States. But in 1770, he was a 35-year-old lawyer and had never run for public office. Incredibly, Adams agreed to take on the defense of the soldiers. He didn’t just defend them— he zealously represented them. Not one of the soldiers was convicted of murder. Six were acquitted and two were found guilty of lesser charges.
Years later, Adams wrote in his diary about his efforts: “The part I took in defense of captain Preston and the soldiers, procured me anxiety, and obloquy enough. It was, however, one of the most gallant, generous, manly and disinterested actions of my whole life, and one of the best pieces of service I ever rendered my country.”
In many ways, public defenders are the heirs of John Adams. Our justice system is designed to work like a game of tug of war. It’s not a game if only the government is pulling on the rope. Law enforcement officers and district attorneys perform vital functions. But having someone pulling on the other side is critical. That is the role of public defenders for those who are indigent and charged with a crime.
Georgia, like much of the United States, spent a large portion of its history giving short shrift to the example of John Adams and the commands of the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and our own Georgia Constitution on the right to counsel. There were too many examples of defendants receiving underfunded and inadequate services.
But with the formation and growth of the Georgia Public Defender Council, that commitment changed. GPDC’s state funding has increased 25% since 2011. Under the leadership of Gov. Nathan Deal and the Georgia General Assembly, GPDC is more robust than ever. It employs more than 400 lawyers and contracts with at least 200 more to provide counsel in over 100,000 trial and appellate cases to individuals who cannot afford attorneys.
Like the British soldiers, public opinion is often against our clients. The facts are often against them, at least at first blush. And yes, some of them, like two of the British soldiers, have committed some crime. But like John Adams, GPDC is charged with providing counsel so our clients receive fair trials, have their rights protected, and see their ultimate needs met as far as possible. Public defenders help direct individuals to accountability courts and other treatment programs that help deal with their underlying problems. Public
defenders lower costs for counties by removing non-violent arrestees from jail, enabling those people to work and support their families while awaiting trial. Public defenders serve the justice system and society by ensuring that the tug of war is balanced.
Admittedly, there is still room for growth. GPDC still only receives a fraction of the money spent on law enforcement and prosecutors. Most assistant public defenders are paid significantly less than assistant district attorneys with the same level of experience. Many public defenders have not received a raise of any significance since beginning their work. And while juvenile justice reform has gone a long way toward helping young people, there is room for more attorneys focused on juvenile defense.
When people think of the “justice system,” they often think only of judges and prosecutors. But public defenders play a crucial role in ensuring that the system functions as it was designed— to do justice. When that means the conviction of someone whose rights have been protected, the system has performed as designed. When the result is the acquittal of those accused, like the British soldiers, the system has also fulfilled its purpose.
Each day, public defenders engage in an often-thankless task, representing the unpopular. Like John Adams, GPDC serves our state by protecting the rights of everyone accused of a crime. I’m proud of the work and commitment of our public defenders.
Bryan Tyson is the executive director of the Georgia Public Defender Council. Prior to his appointment this year, Tyson was in private practice defending businesses and counties and providing campaign finance advice at Strickland Brockington Lewis LLP in Atlanta. He also has served on the staff of U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga.