What ‘My Cousin Vinny’ Got Wrong: Public Defenders Fulfill Gideon’s Promise Day In, Day Out

By Kearns Davis

Fred Lind, Chief Public Defender for Guilford County, recently shared a letter from a juror:

Last week I had the privilege of serving on a jury for a case defended by Mr. A. Brennan Aberle. I was so impressed by his performance on this case I felt I had to put something on the record. At the start Mr. Aberle promised a defense based on facts and reason, and he delivered on that promise. …

I am often worried that justice is only for those who can afford it, but Mr. Aberle’s effective defense of his client reassures me that the freedom of ALL residents of Guilford County is well-protected by your office. I don’t believe a better defense could have been purchased at any price.

“My Cousin Vinny” (1992) is a legal film classic. But its caricature of a stammering, timid, poorly prepared public defender reinforced a stereotype that is widely shared but wildly wrong. As those who appear regularly in criminal court know, public defenders are experts. It is the public defender who spends every day in the same courthouse, working with judges and prosecutors and handling the cases that are staples for indigent clients. One United States district judge, who observes skilled, experienced counsel every day, describes the Federal Public Defender’s office in his district as, “lawyer for lawyer, the best trial law firm in the State of North Carolina.”

Gideon v. Wainwright, in 1967, established states’ Sixth Amendment responsibility to provide counsel to indigent criminal defendants. Soon afterward, the North Carolina Senate directed the Courts Commission to study the implementation of a statewide public defender system.1 A half century later, though, public defender offices serve just 31 of our 100 counties.2

Public defender offices are effective and productive. The North Carolina Commission on the  Administration of Law and Justice, appointed by Chief Justice Mark Martin in 2015, conducted a thorough study of indigent defense in North Carolina.3 In its recent Final Report, the Commission cited empirical research findings that public defenders perform as well or even better on average than private appointed attorneys. By concentrating on particular types of criminal cases, the Commission found, public defenders develop expertise that promotes both quality and efficiency.4

Public defenders do not eliminate the need for private, appointed practitioners. On the contrary, due to conflicts of interest and workloads, jurisdictions with public defenders “require continued active participation by the private bar.”5 Indeed, public defenders make the private bar better. The devoted private lawyers who commit their time and energies to indigent defense, at very low rates, profit from the support, expertise, and collective experience of public defender offices.6

Other stakeholders, too — including judges and prosecutors — strongly support public defenders’ work and role. Accordingly, the Commission concluded, “the best delivery system for indigent defense services in North Carolina is a public defender office.” Its Final Report recommended a statewide system of district and regional public defenders.7

The state makes its weightiest decisions in the criminal courts. In pursuit of justice, the machinery of government turns from protecting liberty — our nation’s founding purpose — to taking liberty away.

To achieve justice, the system must be reliable, and reliability requires effective advocacy on both sides. Gideon’s promise is that everyone accused of a crime, the powerless as well as the powerful, will have an effective advocate. Fifty years of experience teaches that public defenders—the system’s unsung heroes — are the best fulfillment of that promise.

Kearns Davis is the 122nd president of the North Carolina Bar Association. Follow him on Twitter @KearnsDavis.

This article appeared originally in the May 2017 edition of North Carolina Lawyer.


1 N.C. Senate Resolution 654 (June 1967), cited in Report of the Courts Commission to the N.C. General Assembly of 1969, at 2, available at https://archive.org/details/reportofcourtsco19nort_0; see also Susan E. Brooks & Rachel Raimondi, “The Public Defender System in North Carolina—Its History and Future,” N.C. State Bar Journal at 24 (Spring 2017) (citing Courts Commission Report).

2 Brooks & Raimondi at 26; N.C. Comm’n on the Admin. of Law & Justice, Final Report Part 2, App. D. at 9, available at https://nccalj.org/final-report/ (hereinafter “NCCALJ Report”).

3 I am grateful to Chief Justice Martin for the privilege of serving on the Commission.

4 NCCALJ Report at 31-32.

5 Id. at 34.

6 See generally id. at 26-36.

7 NCCALJ Report at 31-32.