To address an overwhelming caseload and personnel shortages in Boone County’s public defender’s office, Judge Kevin Crane told private attorneys Wednesday he would begin appointing them to represent indigent criminal defendants.
Attorneys will not be paid for their services. It’s unknown how long the appointment period will last. Crane, presiding judge of the 13th Judicial Circuit, told Boone County Bar Association members of his decision in an email.
In a case that made it to the Missouri Supreme Court, Columbia-based Public Defender Karl Hinkebein was given one year’s probation for “failing to diligently represent” six clients. Hinkebein’s defense said the errors stemmed from an excessive caseload and chronic illness. The Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel, charged with investigating attorney misconduct, recommended a harsher punishment — suspension.
David Wallis, head of the public defender’s office, said the ruling puts his overworked attorneys, who have similar caseloads, at risk of facing a fate similar to Hinkebein’s.
“OCDC’s brief and oral argument, as well as individual justices’ statements and questions, leave no doubt that public defenders cannot defend themselves against bar complaints with evidence of a high caseload,” wrote Wallis.
In his email to the Boone County Bar Association, Crane wrote: “Due to the correspondence received yesterday, September 26, from Boone County Public Defender Wallis, the Boone County Court will begin, effective today at the 1:30 p.m. dockets, to appoint members of the private bar to represent criminal defendants.”
Although the order applies to most lawyers, there will be a few exceptions, said Mary Epping, court administrator for Boone County. Prosecutors and public defenders will not be appointed, and there will be other exclusions, which she said will be worked out as the situation develops.
Stephen Wyse, of Wyse Law Firm, said he wouldn’t mind if the court conscripted him for simpler misdemeanor cases. But if the county were to give him a complicated, time-consuming case, Wyse said the financial burden could compel him to challenge the order.
“We have an obligation, as members of the bar association, to contribute to the public good,” said Wyse.
Epping said that this sentiment is more or less par for the course. Boone County has done this before, in 2012, and Epping said she got a mixed reaction then. But within hours of Crane’s order, an attorney had called her to volunteer for a felony case, she said.
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