Government & Politics

Public defender crisis leaves woman with no lawyer, jailed in police officer's death

Tammy Widger, after more than two weeks in a Henry County jail and facing a felony murder charge in the shooting death of a police officer, still does not have a lawyer.

Unable to afford an attorney, she has applied for a public defender. But the head of her local public defender’s office has said it might be too overburdened with cases to help her.

Caught between growing caseloads and the threat of ethics complaints for taking on too many clients, public defenders in Henry County and across Missouri have sought relief from the courts, saying they can’t keep taking more cases when they already have too many to responsibly handle.

Widger’s case is just one example of a statewide crisis in Missouri's public defender system, which has long been troubled but has begun to experience more breakdowns in the past six months.

Missouri’s public defender system is nationally known for its low budget, spending less — often substantially less — per capita than every state in the country but Mississippi. But in the past year the strain has started to show in different ways around the state.

In Kansas City, a judge has threatened the head public defender with jail, effectively holding her hostage to keep attorneys in her office taking cases. In St. Louis, a judge ruled Monday that the public defenders are overloaded and suggested ways to get them relief. A Boone County judge has assigned cases to private attorneys and a judge in Rolla suggested some defendants represent themselves in court.

Michael Barrett, the director of Missouri's public defenders system, said many judges are more concerned with keeping the lines of defendants moving through their courts than with clients getting a fair shake.

“When we actually have the time to work on our cases, to investigate, watch video evidence, interview witnesses, file motions, have hearings, et cetera, the byproduct is that it slows their dockets,” Barrett said. “And then come the threats.”

Judges across the state have acknowledged the public defenders’ difficult position and suggested various procedural tweaks. Only in St. Louis has a judge offered hope of relief.

All agree it is up to the Legislature to properly fund the public defenders.

In Boone County, Judge Kevin Crane said he worked well with the public defenders and wouldn’t jail them over not taking cases. But, he said, he had an imperative to keep the courts working.

“I’m not in charge of the state budget,” Crane said. “As such, my job as I see it is to certainly do justice but at the same time I need to move a product, if you will, through the system.”

How Tammy Widger will make her way through the system is unclear.

Tammy Widger, 37, has been charged with second-degree murder in the shooting death of Clinton Officer Ryan Morton. Henry County Sheriff's Office

The 37-year-old remains in the Henry County jail, charged with felony murder in the March 6 shooting death of Ryan Morton, one of several police officers mistakenly sent to her home by a 911 mix-up.

Widger is not accused of shooting Morton. Police think her house guest, James Waters, perhaps fearing arrest, killed Morton and wounded two officers before either killing himself or dying by police bullets.

But prosecutors are holding Widger responsible because, they say, her alleged participation in selling drugs led to Morton’s death.

Police arrested Widger immediately after the shooting and she has remained in jail since. She applied for a public defender by March 8, and when she last appeared in court on March 15, the court noted that she qualified for a public defender.

But she still didn’t have one as of March 22, 16 days after her arrest, according to court records. By contrast, when Ian McCarthy was charged with killing a police officer in the same city last year, he was being represented by a public defender the day after his arrest.

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Jeff Martin, the head of the public defender’s office for Henry County, has said he wasn’t sure a public defender would be available for Widger. He noted that his office is facing severe caseload problems.

The area Martin oversees covers five counties, with one attorney assigned to Henry County. The previous attorney there was carrying nearly 300 cases last year. The current attorney is already defending six homicide cases along with all the others.

For perspective, Kansas City public defenders complain about caseloads of 100 to 125.

Widger, meanwhile, is being held on a $100,000 bond. Without a lawyer, she’s not in a position to seek to have it lowered.

Barry Pollack, the immediate past president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said everyone should care that any person charged with a crime gets an adequate defense.

“If you or a loved one were charged with a serious crime, you have no doubt that you’d want yourself or your loved one to have a well-trained attorney to defend the case,” Pollack said. “If we don’t provide that, we’re going to convict innocent people, and when we do that, it often means a guilty person goes free.”

Missouri has always been reluctant to accept the idea, often repeated on television crime dramas, that if you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you.

In 1970, Missouri was one of only three states that still had not funded indigent defense as required by the U.S. Supreme Court, according to a 2010 article by Sean O’Brien, a law professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Nearly 50 years later in 2017, Missouri ranked 49th in the country in funding public defense, spending about $5.85 per capita, according to the Gideon at 50 project, backed by the National Legal Aid and Defender Association.

Only Mississippi, the poorest state in the country, spends less. Many states spend far more, including Kansas, which spends nearly twice as much per capita.

The public defenders in Missouri are asking for money to hire more attorneys to effectively represent their clients, said Barrett, the head of the state system.

Public defenders in Missouri say they are representing anywhere from 125 to 300 clients at a time. The result is that defendants awaiting trial sit in jail for months, plead guilty just to get out, or might not get as much work done on their case as they should, public defenders say.

A study commissioned by the American Bar Association said the Missouri system needs about 300 more attorneys to adequately do the job, Barrett said.

Barrett said he has reached out to Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens for help, but has not received a response. Greitens’ office did not respond to messages from the Star seeking comment for this story.

Since a Missouri Supreme Court decision last year put public defenders on notice that they could be held responsible if their high caseloads impact their work, public defenders across the state have been on alert.

In Kansas City, head public defender Ruth Petsch told the courts her office couldn’t keep giving cases to attorneys who were overloaded, or they could lose their licenses to ethics complaints.

When attorneys did not show up in court to take new cases, a judge brought Petsch into court to face being held in contempt of court and possibly jail.

At a Nov. 27 Jackson County Circuit Court hearing, Judge Mary Weir explained that she brought Petsch into court as a way of forcing the other attorneys to keep taking cases.

“I have to keep the wheels turning here,” Weir said. “I need somebody to enter their appearance. I have to go after Mrs. Petsch and get her in here.”

Elsewhere, other judges have handled the problem differently.

In St. Louis County, Circuit Judge Douglas Beach ruled this week that most of the public defenders there had too many cases to effectively represent their clients.

Although the law providing relief to overburdened public defenders calls for attorney caseloads to be considered individually, the judge decided to consider the entire St. Louis County public defender office at once. “The problem facing this court is what it would describe as ‘reality,’ " Beach wrote.

The judge suggested several solutions, including establishing a wait list and appointing private attorneys to take some cases.

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Judge Kevin Crane in Boone County, facing similar problems combined with an overcrowded jail, last year appointed dozens of private attorneys to represent indigent clients to relieve the pressure.

He eventually reached an agreement with the public defender’s office to take the cases. But he has had to keep many defendants who are not in custody on a wait list that grows every day, their cases going nowhere until they get an attorney.

Earlier this year in Rolla, a judge’s suggestions for dealing with the problem included recommendations that some felony defendants should represent themselves in court and others should simply plead guilty.

Lawmakers in Jefferson City have shown no sign of providing the increased funding that the public defenders are asking for.

In the meantime, Barrett has collected letters of resignation from former public defenders who said their position had become “impossible.”

The question of what to do about the Missouri public defender system may begin to be answered in the courts.

Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri filed a class-action lawsuit accusing the state of not adequately funding its public defender system. The case is pending.