March 18th is designated as National Public Defender Day. Both the Mingo County Commission and the City of Williamson Mayor and Council signed proclamations recently to observe the day. Mingo County Chief Public Defender, Teresa McCune explains a little more about the importance of the Public Defender office and how it all started.
The Gideon Decision
“In 1963, there was a supreme court case decided, Gideon v. Wainwright. He was a gentleman in his 50’s who allegedly was involved in a bar fight and he had to go to court and represent himself. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court because he didn’t have representation. That was the time the United States Supreme Court said in all criminal cases where people are likely to lose their liberty, they should have counsel whether they can afford it or not,” explains McCune.
Clarence Earl Gideon was a 51-year old man with an eighth-grade education. His conviction without a lawyer was ruled unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court and resulted in the ruling that poor people have a constitutional right to an attorney when facing imprisonment. With the Gideon decision all states now provide court-appointed counsel to those facing criminal charges and incarceration who cannot afford a lawyer.
McCune continued, “There were actually some public defenders before that. In fact, the West Virginia constitution since 1863 said all people should have a lawyer, but that was the case that made it, so the states had to figure out how to organize this service.”
Who Does the Public Defender Office Help?
According to McCune, the Public Defender office represents indigent people that are charged with crimes and are facing jail time. They look at poverty guidelines much like the Department of Health and Human Resources does to determine who is eligible for their services. The office looks at income, family size, and can also factor in things like large medical bills or some other thing that causes them to have more financial need than others.
The Mingo County Office
The Public Defender Office is a registered 501(c)3 non-profit organization. Funding for offices around the state comes through grants from Public Defender Services, which is a state agency.
The Mingo County office employs four attorneys, one office manager, and two clerical staff with one of those serving as both part time clerical and part time paralegal. They also have one law student in office.
“I believe we’re the largest law firm in Mingo County. I have wonderful lawyers here who are both very good at law and very good at caring for people. We are all proud of what we do because we feel like it’s a very important job to do,” says McCune.
It’s More Than “Just a Job”
While talking with McCune, you can tell this is more than just a job for her. It’s something she holds close to her heart. It’s part of who she is. The ability to help others in their time of need is her calling, but how did it all start for her?
“My dad would tell you I got into it when I was five years old. In the 1950’s there was a song, “The Great Pretender,” and my dad would always sing, “The Great Defender,” to me because even when my brother and sister broke my toys, I tried to get the mercy of the court to keep them from being punished.”
McCune attended Marshall University undergrad, then worked as a social work for three years. She recalls coming home one day after a particularly egregious child abuse and neglect case thinking the prosecutor didn’t do what she felt was a good job on the case.
“I thought if that guy can be a lawyer, I can. As they say, the rest is history,” McCune says with a smile.
From there McCune enrolled in the Antioch School of Law, which recruited students that wanted to do public service work.
McCune recalls, “When we applied, we had to write essays. When I go back and look at my essays, I’m sort of astounded because my biggest essay was about how I wanted to come back to southern West Virginia and represent children and that’s part of my job now.”
After spending a few years working in Legal Aide and then a short time in private practice, McCune was recruited for the Mingo County Public Defender Office. Twenty-nine years ago, the office was formed with McCune at the helm.
“I didn’t realize until I started doing this job, I think this is truly where I was meant to be,” McCune says.
As McCune stood before the Williamson Mayor and City Council to provide the proclamation for National Public Defender’s Day, those in the audience could read the back of her shirt which read in bold red letters, “Blessed are the poor in spirit. -Jesus”