More bad press for Matt Shirk on his controversial decision to fire 10 of the most seasoned public defenders in his new office. Interestingly, Shirk (or “pretty boy Matt” as he was known in law school) evidently still isn’t returning reporters’ phone calls. I’m not sure where Matt Shirk is, but here’s Tonyaa Weatherby’s recent column in the TU:
New public defender is looking pound foolish
Next month, Matthew Shirk will take charge of the office that defends indigent people who are accused of crimes.
But so far, it doesn’t look like he’s on their side.
Shirk, a 35-year-old trial lawyer whose candidacy was buoyed by the blessing of the local police union, recently defeated longtime Public Defender Bill White.
White’s defeat stunned Northeast Florida’s legal community, leaving some to scour for an explanation in their party affiliations. Shirk’s being a Republican, they said, hoisted him over White, a Democrat, in conservative strongholds such as Clay and Nassau counties.
There may be something to that.
Duval County’s chart-topping murder rate has led to heightened fears of crime — fears which, in turn, have fed a grossly misguided perception that public defenders like White exist solely to help criminals walk, not to represent poor people who, if left to the mercy of an inexperienced or incompetent lawyer, might wind up wasting years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit.
Those who voted for Shirk probably were comforted by his emphasis on fiscal responsibility rather than seeing to it that poor defendants, many of whom tend to be blamed for their own predicaments, receive adequate counsel.
But here’s the thing: Representing people who aren’t able to pay shouldn’t be a matter of politics or penny-pinching, but a matter of fairness and justice.
It doesn’t seem that Shirk has received that message.
He recently fired 10 of the area’s most experienced, most respected public defenders — his reasoning being, according to the Times-Union, that they cost too much.
We’re talking lawyers like Pat McGuiness and Ann Finnell. Lawyers who, back in 2000, saved 16-year-old Brenton Butler from going to prison by persuading a jury that when he confessed to killing a Georgia tourist earlier that year, he had done so under police coercion.
Their triumph in that case was the subject of an Oscar-winning documentary titled Murder on a Sunday Morning. Legal heavy-hitters such as Stephen Bright, senior counsel for the nonprofit Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta and one of the nation’s top capital defense lawyers, often use it to teach law students the importance of having competent public defenders.
You’d think that Shirk would want to keep stars like McGuiness and Finnell so that the system doesn’t run the risk of wrongly sending an innocent person to prison or worse, to Death Row — and ultimately cost taxpayers millions in compensation if that person is later freed.
But he didn’t. And that’s scary.
If Shirk winds up replacing too many seasoned public defenders with cheaper, less-experienced ones, it won’t lead to more efficiency, Bright said.
“An experienced public defender can do much more work in much less time because they are experienced,” said Bright, whose center, among other things, helps Death Row inmates who had bad lawyers receive new trials.
“The ones who aren’t as experienced will take up a lot more time because they have a learning curve … the mistake here is that while these new ones are learning, someone could be wrongfully convicted …
“What he’s [Shirk] doing is completely contrary to what public defender offices are supposed to do …”
Now none of this is to say that Shirk, who didn’t return my phone calls, will necessarily hire inadequate lawyers — although the fact that he has never defended a murder case would lead one to wonder where his qualifications rest in choosing lawyers to replace the stellar ones that he let go.
So now, we have a public defender who places greater weight on protecting people’s pocketbooks than doing what any person may someday need him to do for them, or for their children, or for someone else close to them: To provide solid legal representation to those who can’t afford it.
He’s proven it by purging the public defender’s office of top-notch lawyers that even he could learn something from; lawyers whose firings ought to embarrass and outrage this city.
Shirk may be on the side of economic efficiency. But right now, he has a ways to go to show that he’s on the side of poor defendants seeking justice.