What is a public defender? KSAT Explains

SAN ANTONIOYou have the right to an attorney.

If you’ve ever watched any crime drama, or if you’ve ever been arrested, you know the lines that follow that first one.

If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed to you.

For those who can’t afford an attorney in Bexar County, the Bexar County Public Defender’s Office steps in.

“All we do is indigent defense,” said Jacqueline Lamerson, interim chief public defender for Bexar County.

Someone who has been there

Isaac Munoz was arrested on Aug. 5, 2022.

“You’re kind of scared,” he said. “You don’t know anything.”

His arrest followed several tough years.

Isaac’s father died in 2018, his mother died in 2019, and his sister died in 2020.

His sister’s death left him without a place to stay.

“I’m a struggling homeless person. I am homeless,” he said. “I live in an abandoned trailer that was given to me.”

His arrest was related to a family get-together where he says tensions boiled over.

Isaac said there was a fight, and then he left.

He was arrested months later when he got pulled over.

Isaac was connected with a public defender in jail.

This year, the charges against Isaac were dismissed, and he is thankful to the public defender who helped him along the way.

“She didn’t see me as a number,” he said.

Initially, public defenders represent everyone

A Bexar County public defender is on duty 24/7 at the Bexar County Jail. They represent every person who gets booked into the jail as they go before a magistrate judge to face their charges.

“Magistration is when the judge tells you what your charges are and what your bonds are set at,” said Robert Hernandez, an attorney with the Bexar County Public Defender’s Office. “That’s what’s happening in the courtroom.”

That small courtroom is located inside the inmate processing center.

“What we try to do is try to get them a reasonable amount of bond,” said Hernandez.

He advises those under arrest not to discuss their case with the magistrate judge or plead their case.

“Every time that somebody gets arrested, we get the documentation from the clerk’s office,” he said. “We get it into the computer. We check out their file. We read through it to make sure that there’s enough probable cause for the arrest.”

After a bond is set, some inmates will choose their own attorneys. Some may get a court-appointed attorney, which could be a private attorney selected by the court.

Others get an attorney from the Bexar County Public Defender’s Office.

To qualify for indigent defense, a person must have a monthly income of $997 or less once necessities like rent, utilities, and groceries have been subtracted.

Who is Clarence Gideon?

The right to counsel for those who can’t afford it can be traced back to Clarence Gideon.

He was arrested in 1961 in Panama City, Florida, for breaking into a pool hall and stealing booze, soda and cash.

“The United States Constitution says we have a Sixth Amendment right to counsel to assist us in criminal trials,” said Stephanie Stevens, clinical professor of law at St. Mary’s University Law School.

However, state law in Florida at the time afforded the right to counsel for those who couldn’t pay for it if they were booked on a capital offense.

Gideon’s charge was a felony.

Clarence Gideon (KSAT)

“He had a trial where he had to represent himself. He had to bring in witnesses on his own. He had to cross-examine and make opening statements, closing arguments — all the things lawyers do, all on his own,” said Stevens.

Gideon was convicted and sentenced to prison.

He started his appeal there, still acting as his own attorney, eventually sending a handwritten letter to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Then in 1963, the highest court in the country sided with the man who had little money and little education.

“It was a phenomenal ruling,” Stevens said. “And ultimately, it means that anyone accused of a crime who cannot afford a lawyer, and if it is a crime that for which a person faces possible incarceration, they are entitled to have a court-appointed lawyer at the state’s expense.”

Today, Gideon is celebrated in the world of public defense.

March 18, the day that the Supreme Court decision came down, is known as Gideon’s Day.

Despite Gideon’s impact, not every county has a public defender’s office.

“We need to bring parity in place so that simply because you do not have the resources to defend yourself, you are not left behind,” Stevens said.

There is an effort to close the gap with what’s called Managed Assigned Counsel, or MAC.

It’s a system that allows private attorneys to be chosen when needed to represent indigent clients.

The income threshold for indigent representation is $997 or less per month after subtracting expenses like rent, utilities and food.

Find more KSAT Explains episodes here

About the Authors

Myra Arthur is passionate about San Antonio and sharing its stories. She graduated high school in the Alamo City and always wanted to anchor and report in her hometown. Myra anchors KSAT News at 6:00 p.m. and hosts and reports for the streaming show, KSAT Explains. She joined KSAT in 2012 after anchoring and reporting in Waco and Corpus Christi.

Valerie Gomez is lead video editor and graphic artist for KSAT Explains. She began her career in 2014 and has been with KSAT since 2017. She helped create KSAT’s first digital-only newscast in 2018, and her work on KSAT Explains and various specials have earned her a Gracie Award from the Alliance for Women in Media and multiple Emmy nominations.

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