(Fremont County, WY) – After an introduction to the world of public defenders, County 10 sat down with Fremont County Supervising Attorney Jonathan Gerard and Assistant Public Defender Valerie Schoneberger to discuss being a public defender in Fremont County.
This piece is meant to shed light on their work specifically and is not meant to downplay the great work of other local criminal defense attorneys.
At the most basic level, public defenders are state employees who defend the Constitution and represent people who cannot defend themselves.
Turnover and Experience
The Fremont County Public Defenders Office is one of the few in the state with a low turnover rate. The majority of their attorneys have been practicing law for over a decade.
Fremont County, by the numbers, ranks in the top five busiest offices in the state. Gillette, Cheyenne, and Casper all rank above us, but they also have really high turnover.
Caseloads are calculated based on the number of cases divided by the number of attorneys. If you lose an attorney for a while, then their numbers go up because there are fewer attorneys to divide by.
“We represent 90% of all criminal defendants or more,” Gerard explained. “Sometimes it’s 95%. Fremont County, we don’t have a lot of private attorney hires just because it’s not like Pinedale, where there’s big money, or Gillette, where there’s big money. Naturally, there’s just not a lot of people that can pay for a private attorney because it’s just, it’s expensive.”
He has personally represented over 800 individuals in Fremont County.
Innocent until proven guilty
There is a presumption of innocence when it comes to the criminal justice system.
“It is supposed to be an even playing field, but it is somewhat skewed against the defendant,” he continued. “I’ve never found it hard to defend people. You’re helping people.”
“The fact is that people need to have a lawyer. Especially, if the government violates your rights by searching your car and finding drugs or coming into your house without a warrant.”
“There’s this perception that we’re public pretenders, and maybe in some states that’s more accurate because you have a lot of inexperienced attorneys come in, cut their teeth, get a little bit of trial experience and then move to a firm, and try and make big money,” Gerard said. “At least in this county, I think that the people who are appointed the public defenders don’t oftentimes appreciate the caliber of attorney that they’re getting. There’s no substitute for decades of experience and doing it every single day.”
‘You don’t pick your attorney, and we don’t pick you.’
Public defenders can have a transparent relationship with their clients.
“We’re more like the ER doctors,” Schoneberger explained. “You show up at the ER, this is your guy. They’re gonna take care of you. So, I think it creates a different relationship where we can be maybe more straightforward, or we have the capacity to push people more than attorneys who they pay.”
“We are going to be zealously representing you. Sometimes it means giving you really bad news and advising you that it’s best for you to make this really hard choice.”
There seems to be a misconception that if a person is convicted, it’s the fault of their attorney. Schoneberger thinks that is because of a disconnect about the role of the defense attorney.
“The person who’s convicted always holds a grudge against their attorney, usually at a public defender, whoever was sitting there in the chair right next to you you’re gonna blame for what happened to you. They don’t blame the prosecutor whose job it is to put you in prison. They don’t blame the judge who, in fact, sent you to prison. You know, it’s that guy sitting in the chair next to you who was trying to represent you. I think it’s because there’s a disconnect, about what our role is. Some people think our role is to make things go away or to get you this great outcome. And that’s not the role. I mean, we can’t change the facts. We can’t change the evidence. We can’t choose the law. We can’t change what happened. We just operate within this small framework, protecting people’s constitutional rights, presenting a defense if there is one. But there’s a disconnect between their expectation of what will happen and what happens, so the person next to them gets blamed.”
At the end of the day
Their years of representing criminal cases make them some of the most experienced criminal defense attorneys in Fremont County, and are quite often called upon by private attorneys for their expertise.
“People in Fremont County don’t realize that when they get a public defender, they’re getting the best criminal defense attorneys,” Gerard said.