Why Public Defense is Important

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A joint effort of the UW Law Center for Public Service Law and the UW Public Interest Law Association, PILA Corner as an Op-Ed space for members of the UW Public Interest Association and other student public interest leaders at UW Law School addressing public interest topics such as social, economic and racial justice, human rights, volunteerism, leadership, internship experiences, public interest careers tips and more. PILA Corner postings and content express the views of the author(s) only and does not necessarily reflect the views of the UW Public Interest Association or UW Law School and are only listed for identification purposes. Submissions are welcome by all UW law students and graduates. For submission guidelines please contact Aline Carton-Listfjeld, Director, Center for Public Service Law at acarton@uw.edu.

Why Public Defense is Important

By Sarah Tatistcheff, UW Law, JD Class of 2016

 From Curiosity to Transformation

This summer I had the opportunity and privilege to be a Rule 9 intern at the Snohomish County Public Defender Association. When I accepted the position I was excited at the prospect of learning about public defense. I enjoyed studying criminal law and thought I had a knack for the defense side. I wanted to try public defense but I also thought that prosecution was also a career possibility. Little did I know that by the end of my summer I would not be able to imagine myself doing anything but public defense for the rest of my career.

 3044867827_6e619a0f80My first week started out like an average first week at any job. We did basic training and a few court appearances and was paired with my supervisor. My supervisor was Braden Pence who was in the Evergreen District Court working solely on the City of Snohomish cases. Braden ended up being a great mentor who taught me valuable skills as a trial attorney. He helped me appreciate and realize what being a public defender truly means. His method of teaching was throwing me into the mix and giving me hands on experience straight from the beginning.

 The first case he threw me in on was a complicated animal cruelty case in where a single mother had her three horses taken from her. The oldest of the three who she owned since she was a child was euthanized by the City before she had a chance to say goodbye. After examining the case and evidence, it was obvious that the City was being overzealous in prosecuting this woman for something that was clearly not animal abuse. This was going to end up being a complicated case with expert and characters witnesses, doctors, and an animal control officer. Luckily, before we went to trial, we won the case because the search and seizure of the property and horses was illegal. Braden and I went with our client to retrieve the horses. The look on her face and her appreciation is something I will never forget.

 Seeking Justice for Average People

Throughout my summer, I had many different experiences like this, working with average people from all backgrounds who just needed to feel heard and get justice from a system that had wronged them so many times before. In all, I was able to participate in five trials, three of which I tried by myself, two which resulted in a not guilty verdict. From the first trial, I was instantly hooked on the high of presenting a case and questioning witnesses in front of the jury. It was exciting to stand up and object or to have the prosecutor’s objections fall flat.

 My last trial was by far the most exciting and rewarding. I worked with a different attorney on a case out in the South Division in Lynnwood which was a Domestic Violence Assault. Our client was clearly innocent and the girlfriend was being vindictive and creating a web of ridiculous stories. The trial was long and tedious with the prosecutor giving this case all that he had since this was his last trial before he left the County. The day after our trial the jury came back with a not guilty verdict. That verdict meant everything for our client who was relying on it for a job promotion. It felt like justice was done.

Overall, after my experiences this summer secured my belief that public defense is vital to maintain the system. The most important lesson I learned this summer is that everyone has a story that needs to be heard. Their lives depend on these charges and it is our job to get the best result for them. After this summer, I cannot imagine myself doing any other career.

Photo credit: https://farm4.static.flickr.com/3165/3044867827_6e619a0f80.jpg