Innocent Kansas City man spent a year in jail because of the public defender’s crushing caseload

Public defenders representing some 100 clients at a time say a 22-year-old Kansas City man arrested for a robbery he didn’t commit spent 13 months in the Jackson County jail as a direct result of their understaffing and impossible workload.

It was a year before they even had a chance to investigate his case, said Ruth Petsch, head of the Kansas City public defender’s office. Then they quickly realized he couldn’t have committed the crime. Assault charges were dropped, and he was finally released last month.

“I wouldn’t say his situation was unique,” either, said Petsch, whose 34 attorneys are so swamped that the Missouri Supreme Court warned last month that they could lose their law licenses if they don’t provide the legally required level of representation. But now courts also say they have no right to refuse to take on still more cases and must get a judge’s permission each time.

As a result, a number of public defenders in Missouri have resigned in recent weeks. (“I have long wanted to practice indigent defense,” reads one anguished resignation letter, but as “my law license is my livelihood…how I feed my family and put a roof over our heads, I will not risk it.”) Kansas City public defenders have said they have to stop taking on new cases for now. And presiding Jackson County Circuit Court Judge John Torrence said that’s not what’s going to happen. In his view, the real problem is that Petsch’s office is not being realistic.

Five years ago, Petsch started assigning attorneys to handle cases from start to finish instead of assigning them to courtrooms where most cases were cleared quickly in what she called “plea factories.” Since that changed, said Torrence, the system’s slowed to a creep. “In a perfect world, it would be lovely if everybody could handle a charge like wealthy people do,” he said. But they can’t because the Missouri legislature is “never going to say, ‘Let’s do this the way O.J. Simpson was represented.’ ’’

That’s for sure. But there’s a lot of daylight between Simpson’s “dream team” and Missouri public defenders in the second-worst funded system in the country. Even with $4.5 million in new funding this year, none went into easing the caseloads, but had to be spent to pay outside lawyers in cases with multiple indigent defendants who couldn’t be represented by the same office, said Michael Barrett, director of Missouri’s public defender system. Defendants in low-level cases often plead guilty when they’re not, because they’d lose leases and jobs if they waited for their cases to go to trial.

Of the 22-year-old finally released from the Jackson County jail last month, Torrence said, “I know about that case. That case is an atrocity; it should never have been filed.” Still, the idea that his lawyers didn’t have time to investigate until recently “is horseshit. Sadly, with the Missouri legislature, there’s a triage aspect to it, and if you’re putting that case at the back of the line, something’s wrong.”

The case fell apart because only 23 seconds after the robbery victim called 911, right after being accosted in front of the Embassy Suites, the man later charged with the crime was clocked on a camera inside a QuikTrip on Main Street, a six-minute walk away, or a three-minute drive. Even someone sprinting at the speed of the world record holder would have taken a minute and change. As cops moved in, the young man did run because he’d just stolen a fountain soda from the convenience store. So for what Petsch called “a 4-cent loss to QuikTrip,” he lost a year of his life, and Jackson County taxpayers paid about $95 a day for 13 months.

He’d be in jail still except that for the fact that without super powers, his involvement in the robbery was a physical impossibility. And so is the expectation that public defenders can represent their clients ethically without more help.