public defenders

Dan Margolies / KCUR 89.3

Lawyers with the Public Defender’s Kansas City office showed up en masse at a court hearing Thursday to express their unhappiness over being appointed to take on new cases while laboring under crushing caseloads.

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The chronically underfunded Missouri public defender system is now dealing with another vexing issue: the prospect that its overworked attorneys could be punished for not keeping up with their workloads. And that's leading to a growing standoff between judges and public defender attorneys.

The issue surfaced after the Missouri Supreme Court last month suspended a 21-year veteran of the public defender’s office in Columbia who was laboring under a huge caseload and was hospitalized due to chronic health problems.

If you're charged with a crime and can't afford a lawyer, one will be provided for you, guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. Because in our judicial system, we're supposed to be presumed innocent. But in Missouri, critics say the state's public defender system isn't doing it's job. One Kansas City man believes that system's failures lead to his life sentence. So what's going on in Missouri?

Guests:

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This story was updated at 1:26 p.m. Thursday to include the comments of Michael Barrett, head of the Missouri public defender system.

Last July, Shondel Church was arrested in Kansas City for allegedly stealing a generator and tool box from his stepmother.

Elle Moxley / KCUR 89.3

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon won’t be defending anyone.

Michael Barrett, the state’s public defender, earlier this month tried to assign the governor a case, citing an overburdened system and budget cuts from the state. Though Barrett argued he had the authority to do so under Missouri law, a Cole County judge on Thursday disagreed.

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A loophole in Missouri's criminal code means most stealing cases are no longer felonies. 

On Tuesday, the Missouri Supreme Court reduced multiple felonies for a woman convicted of stealing firearms to misdemeanors, citing vague language written into the state's criminal code in 2002. 

The court looked at the case of Amanda Bazell, who was convicted of felony stealing. Her lawyer noticed that the language in the criminal code that designates stealing offenses as felonies was unclear.  The court agreed. 

Here's what the court's opinion states:

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Fallout from the disclosure that the pretrial detention center in Leavenworth had been recording attorney-client meetings and phone calls has now spread beyond Kansas.

The Federal Public Defender’s office in Kansas City, Missouri, recently sought to have one of its clients released from detention as a result of the apparent breach of attorney-client privilege.

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Any hopes Gov. Jay Nixon may have about patching things up with Missouri’s top public defender will have to be put on hold for a while longer.

Budget tensions came to a head last week when Michael Barrett, director of the state’s public defender’s office, assigned the governor to defend an assault case in Cole County, Missouri.

The head of Missouri's public defender system appointed Gov. Jay Nixon to handle a case in protest of withheld funding. So, just how dire is the situation for Missouri's public defenders?

Guests:

Elle Moxley / KCUR 89.3

The frustrated director of Missouri’s underfunded public defender’s office has done something most unusual: He’s assigned a case to the governor.

The budget woes in Michael Barrett’s department are ongoing – too many poor people needing public defenders, too few lawyers to represent them. So he’s relying on a state law that appears to let him appoint any lawyer who's a member of the Missouri Bar to defend an indigent criminal defendant.

Enter Gov. Jay Nixon.