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Wyandotte County residents turn out in support of proposal to establish a public defender's office

Mark Dupree
Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga
/
KCUR 89.3
Wyandotte County District Attorney Mark Dupree speaks at the forum Saturday at Kansas City, Kansas Community College.

In a public forum Saturday, many community members discussed the need for a public defender's office. There was opposition, too, mostly from defense attorneys in the  county.

The Kansas Board of Indigents' Defense Services held a public hearing Saturday at Kansas City, Kansas Community College on a proposal to establish a public defender’s office in Wyandotte County which currently does not have one. The hearing was attended by close to 200 community members.

In her Governor’s Commission for Racial Equity and Justice Initial Report, Gov. Laura Kelly recommends that counties with more than 100,000 residents have a public defender’s office. Wyandotte County has more than 165,000 residents.

Wyandotte County District Attorney Mark Dupree told the board he thinks a public defender’s office is necessary.

“I was a private attorney, and as a private attorney, I was on this list,” said Dupree. “I, at one time, enjoyed the funds that came from this list, but then I realized things need to change.”

When a lack of financial resources prevents a person from hiring an attorney, a county judge selects an attorney from a list of attorneys paid by the county to represent those clients.

Dupree said when he became prosecutor, he learned that many attorneys would request continuances for their clients without a good reason and judges would grant a continuance of six months or more, leaving the client stuck in jail during that period.

Defense attorney Charles Lamb shouted at Dupree and told him he was not ‘doing his job.’ But, Dupree continued.

“The reality is, that if we don’t look at the facts rather than the financial benefit, then we never look at helping the real people who need it,” said Dupree.

“The facts are, we have individuals, Black, brown, white, broke, all up in the system who are sitting in the jail, and they do not have adequate representation. And the study we did, we showed that we literally have attorneys who are not requesting bond reductions. This is not about money.”

More than 30 other people spoke to the board, and the majority of them were in favor of a public defender’s office.

Opposition from defense lawyers

But Lamb, a private defense attorney, expressed frustration, saying the meeting was a surprise to area attorneys who often fulfill a public defender’s role.

“I’ve invested my entire career into defending the indigent people in this community,” said Lamb. “To say you’re going to replace us with public defenders is not true. We’re all public defenders. You said this is public comment. We’re stakeholders. This board did not come to us, when I heard this was happening it was only recently.”

Mike Nichols, who also opposes a public defenders’ office, said he is a court-appointed attorney in Wyandotte County and has represented clients appointed to him for 11 years. Like Lamb, he said he also received short notice.

He criticized BIDS for not bringing court-appointed attorneys together to discuss problems regularly. He said if he and other attorneys had been included, they could have avoided a lot of problems for clients.

“I cannot believe that we got to this point without at least talking to those of us who have been filling this role for all of these years, doing this work for the community,” said Nichols. “I think that we should have had a voice at the table just as much as everyone in this room.”

Melody Brannon serves in Topeka as a Federal Public Defender for the state of Kansas. She said contrary to the opposition, a public defender’s office in Wyandotte County would not force out attorneys who are court appointed.

According to Brannon, at the federal level, there is a hybrid system which incorporates both public and private attorneys.

“Both parts are necessary for a vibrant public defense system in any community,” said Brannon. “We work together, we support each other and we collaborate in a really positive way to help each other provide an across-the-board public defense for every client that is brought into the system.”

Brannon said the best way to address many of the injustices in Wyandotte County is to establish a public defender’s office.

“Anytime that the bench, prosecutors and law enforcement are at the table, there should be a seat there for a public defender,” said Brannon. “A public defender has a different perspective and experience than private counsel who also provides truly public defense for those people that they are appointed to. But because of that difference in perspective, I think that’s really important.”

She added, “An institutional public defender can serve as a powerful check on police misconduct, prosecutorial abuse and failed system issues.”

If BIDS votes to recommend a public defender’s office in Wyandotte County, the earliest the office would be established is 2024.

Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga is a freelance reporter for KCUR 89.3.
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