The Invaluable Work of Public Defense

The Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia (PDS) is a federally funded organization that represents indigent adults and minors accused of serious crimes in DC. The organization was established in 1970 under a federal statue that stipulated under the 6th amendment that the government provide counsel to those who cannot afford an attorney. As a model public defender, PDS typically handles the most serious felony cases in the district.

This summer, I am an intern investigator working alongside two attorneys, one in the Trial Division and one in the Civil Legal Services Division. Despite the fact that I’ve only been working for a few weeks, I’ve already had the opportunity to work a variety of cases including misdemeanor assaults, custody, housing, and drug cases.

I chose this position as an experiment in law. After pivoting away from business last year, I figured an immersive foray into the legal field would help me determine whether I want to pursue such a career. Six weeks into my internship, I’m definitely considering it. The work here is proving to be a great fit for my skills and interests, and the fact that I’m always learning doesn’t hurt. Also, it’s challenging, which is absolutely a personal requirement for the career I ultimately choose to enter. Public defense is sometimes spontaneous and urgent, sometimes calculated and deliberate, and it is that diversity of experience which I’ve come to nothing short of love.
 Our role as investigators is primarily to fact-find and to gather as much evidence as possible to enable our attorney to provide the best possible legal representation for our clients. Every day is different. Just to get an idea, here are some of the most exciting tasks we do fairly regularly: interview clients in jail and in the field to hear their side of the story; assist our attorneys in developing questions and theories of defense; obtain character letters and educational records for sentencing; serve subpoenas; draft memos, pull surveillance footage; canvass for witnesses; and, of course, watch our attorneys and others in court. There is really never a dull day on the job.
One of the best parts of the internship is client and community interaction – working in the field to gather information and help bolster our case. It’s the nature of our work that we encounter people during some of the worst times in their life, so it’s quite the privilege to be able to help them during these dark hours. And, as always, this requires being a zealous advocate on the client’s behalf – doing everything we possibly can to best defend him or her.
The DC Superior Courthouse, where PDS tries most of its cases.

Public defenders are crucial to maintaining the integrity of the criminal justice system. One’s income cannot and should not determine whether they have quality legal representation in court. While PDS is not a criminal justice reform or civil rights organization, we certainly do a substantial amount of important work in both of those areas, first and foremost by fighting zealously for our clients. And if that means taking the case to trial, we’re not afraid to do so. In fact, PDS has won acquittals on all significant charges in more than 50 percent of its trial cases since October 2011, a value considerably higher than even the performance of much private counsel.

By the summer’s end, I will have a more in-depth view of the criminal justice system and the communities we serve. While I am learning an incredible amount professionally, working at PDS is also a deeply humbling and personal experience. It’s exposing me to a part of our world I didn’t know existed, and is starting to empower me as the voice of the voiceless. Public defense is not easy work by any stretch of measure, but it’s fun, especially for an adrenaline-junkie like me, and profoundly rewarding.

I’m truly overwhelmed with gratitude for the opportunity to work firsthand in public defense. Is there anything better than using your mind for good?

Thanks for reading and if you have any questions or comments, please do not hesitate to reach out.

Until next week,
Andrew Jacobson, ’19