Playing Defense – First Week at the Public Defender Service in D.C.

How to Play Defense


This summer I have the pleasure of working for two defenders at the Mental Health Division of the Public Defender Service, Sheryl Jones and Hadley Truettner, in Washington D.C..  As an intern investigator, it is my responsibility to travel to different mental health facilities, interview our clients, inform them of their legal rights, and help them meet their needs.  When I first came across the internship listing on B.hired, I knew that I had my top choice for a summer job.

Both Sheryl and Hadley are wonderful mentors; they have shared numerous stories about their background and experience as attorneys. Even with just a week’s worth of experience, I know that my time at PDS will be invaluable for determining my interest in law school or a potential career at an attorney in the public sector.

Unlike most legal internships, PDS intern investigators are active “field agents” for their clients’ defense. We  interview clients, family members, eye witnesses, collect relevant information, request record releases from psychiatric hospitals, review and summarize medical records, attend hearings and sometimes we even get to testify on behalf of our clients!

Sheryl and Hadley both have numerous cases that they are working on and they receive new ones from the U.S Superior District Court every week. I have learned that the mental health system proceedings are very complex.  Essentially, patients can get emergencied to psychiatric wards against their will, if certain certified agents determine that they are a danger to themselves or others as a result of their mental illness. Once in the hospital, the court assigns one of the PDS attorneys to represent the clients because they need our help to get out.

I am always impressed by Sheryl and Hadley’s ability to champion their clients’ desires — and it’s not always easy. Many clients refuse to speak to us, others don’t trust us. However, years of experience have given the PDS attorneys a tough skin. Sheryl has informed me that she doesn’t take it personally anymore. It is clear that through this internship you learn to respect a client’s decision, no matter what that decision is. What happens to the cases where the clients refuse to speak with their attorney? Well, attorneys prepare as best they can without the client’s cooperation, and they show up to court hearings to channel the client’s decisions.

From left to right, Sheryl Jones, me, and Hadley Truettner (at Mental Health Division headquarters, Public Defender Service)

I have had two remarkable experiences following PDS attorneys to court hearings. Regardless of the outcome of the hearings, both attorneys gave powerful and confident performances; they exhibited a thorough knowledge of case law and rules of evidence, clear grasp of their client’s case, and respect towards client’s wishes. They are models for how to build rapport with clients and how to fight for client’s wishes. The longer I stay in this internship, the deeper into the cases I get and the more fieldwork I do. I believe that by the end of the summer, I’ll be on my way learning how to play defense.

Historical Context

Over 100 years ago,  there was a mental health hospital called the “Government Hospital for the Insane.” Deep within the walls of this gothic facility lied psychiatrists and their patients…Looking at old pictures of the historic hospital easily evokes the first words of a scary story. Today, this mental health institution is called St. Elizabeth’s Hospital; it’s gone a long way from where it first started 100 years ago, but the hospital’s “moral treatment” policies still prevail.

St. Elizabeth’s Hospital (Source: Wikipedia)

Stigmatized Clients

While medicine has evolved and many mental health patients experience tremendous progress with regard to their symptoms, there is a stigma against them in contemporary society. The mentally ill are defined by their illness. Investigations coordinator at the Mental Health Division of the Public Defender Service, Carolyn Slenska, stated that “when you’re mentally ill, you’re never the person they listen to…People find ways to use [the mental illness] against you, that’s not fair.”

In many cases this stigma leads to a suppression of human rights. When we consider mental health patients, we must always remember to respect their liberties, their rights, and by extension, their decisions — no matter what those decisions are.

Life as an Intern Investigator

The main lesson we learn from Ms. Slenska is that mental health patients have the same rights as any individual.

-Gina Gkoulgkountina, ’15