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Stephen J. Lee, Forum News Service, Published June 05 2013

Role of public defenders goes beyond winning, losing cases

GRAND FORKS – Being a court-appointed, taxpayer-funded lawyer for criminal defendants can be a tough gig, said Ted Sandberg.

But it serves justice, despite the dismal odds of winning a case or the love of the public, which pays for such defenders, he said.

He’s a partner in a private law firm in Grand Forks – and president of the local bar association – who contracts with the state as a part-time public defender for people with little money who are charged with crimes.

“You will lose more than 90 percent of cases,” Sandberg said. “Let’s be honest – most of them are here for a reason. Your job is to keep the system from squashing them like a bug, and the other part is to help shepherd them through the process.”

“Instead of going to the penitentiary, maybe your client can stay local and get some treatment for mental health problems. Especially with indigent clients, nobody has ever listened to these people. If you can take a few moments and talk to these people, you can make a very slight difference.”

Justice vs. winning

Sandberg points to a client he was appointed to defend a few years ago.

“He was a very angry man, had been in prison before, had a family, but he couldn’t stop stealing. He was in trouble, facing huge prison time.”

Court records back up Sandberg’s account, although the man himself didn’t respond to a request for an interview.

His client had a chip on his shoulder but no faith in the system or his own “free” public defender, Sandberg said.

But the man’s wife provided the key in Sandberg’s search for the reasoning behind the crime: “He doesn’t sleep.”

Sandberg connected him with social services for a mental health check.

“It turned out he had horrible sleep apnea. He only slept an hour a day. Had been sleep-deprived for years.”

Prosecutors and a judge listened to Sandberg’s case.

The man went to prison anyway, but for not much more than a year, plus several years of probation.

“He came back into my office, was just thrilled,” Sandberg said. “His whole life was turned around. It didn’t keep him from being convicted, but it helped him.”

Anniversary of case

The role of public defenders is worth noting in the 50th year since the U.S. Supreme Court’s “Gideon” decision requiring states to provide anyone charged with a felony a lawyer if he or she can’t afford one, said Robin Huseby, executive director of the North Dakota Commission on Legal Counsel for Indigents, based in Valley City.

A state agency authorized by the Legislature in 2005, the commission is a system of full-time, salaried public defenders, a new thing in the state.

Although North Dakota since statehood has required that “the indigent” be provided legal counsel, only in the past eight years has it been salaried, state-employed lawyers not managed by the judges they argue before, Huseby said.

Before, public defenders bid on local contracts parceled out by local judges, who also made the assignments in each case. That gave more of an appearance of the courts not being neutral, said Huseby, a former prosecutor in Valley City.