November 20, 2020

The words still resonate – “I don’t want a Public Defender, I want a real lawyer.”  They underpinned the backhanded compliment of “hey PD, you’re good.  You should go to law school.”  But it has been the case for decades that a person accused of a crime – adult or juvenile – was better off with a Philadelphia PD than “private counsel.”  In some ways the explanation is patent – just like if you are a gunshot victim you want to be treated in an urban hospital where such injuries are commonplace and the treatment the ‘house’ specialty, or criminal defense you want at attorney who does this and only this type of work, especially one with the support of their colleagues.

But there is more, and the story is told richly in THE DEFENDER, the history of what was originally known as the “Voluntary Defender” and is now The Defender Association of Philadelphia.  Birthed as a charitable organization nearly a century ago, the Defender fulfilled Gideon’s promise before the guarantee of the right to counsel to the indigent accused was ever assured by the Court.

THE DEFENDER is a story of evolution in role and revolution in vision:

  • The transformation from a charitable organization into a private non-profit that is essential to the functioning of the courts.
  • The view of the lawyer who will not represent those who are guilty and just seek a lawyer’s aid to ‘beat the rap’ to the lawyer who fights zealously for all in the courtroom regardless of the provable guilt of the offender and the horrific details of the crime.
  • An approach to lawyering that recognized, 90 years ago, that the duty of representation extended to addressing the circumstances that too often bred crime, with social workers joining with counsel in the Association’s early days and now more than ever a commitment to holistic representation.
  • The commitment to excellence, with informal weekly training morphing into a three week initiation followed by in-house education, CLEs and a flow of memoranda meant to keep the Assistant Defenders at their best.
  • Transforming the litigation of homicide and capital punishment cases in Pennsylvania and nationally, with its state court office taking over 20% of all homicide cases in Philadelphia, handling them masterfully, and never having a case result in a sentence of death; and its federal affiliate becoming the national leader in capital habeas litigation.
  • System challenges and law reform. Defender lawyers found lying police and exposed them and brought appellate cases that changed the law.  Changed it for eyewitness cases; mandatory sentencing cases; the law of search and seizure; and more.
  • Diversity in law and lawyering, where women and people of color were gradually, in fits and starts, brought into an organization where their voices and skills were needed and their capabilities and achievements finally recognized.
  • The recognition that it is the conditions of sentencing, parole and probation that may be more significant than the trial and judgment, and the resulting commitment to having a parole and probation unit that took on the herculean task of seeking releases of inmates and finding them the programs and support that would reduce the risk of a return to incarceration.
  • Fighting for alternatives to conviction and incarceration, especially those whose crimes arose directly from their own victimization.

This reviewer is intimately familiar with the Defender Association.  I was a proud member of its attorney staff – trial and appellate – from 1978 until 1990; I continue to train its lawyers and collaborate on cases and project; and my wife is a member of its highly-regarded appeals division.  Yet even as an insider the book was revelatory.  THE DEFENDER traces the history of the office leader by leader – and the achievements of individuals such as Vince Ziccardi, Ben Lerner, Ellen Greenlee, and now Keir Bradford-Grey – are the touchstones for recounting the triumphs and tribulations of a storied office.

There is more.  Other legendary figures played prominent roles – Tony Amsterdam, with his Penn Law clinic; First Assistant Lou Natali, who made quality training the cornerstone of the Defender; David Rudovsky, first as an Amsterdam fellow who took on the horrific prison conditions Defender clients suffered and then as First Assistant; John Packel, who made appellate representation as vital and vibrant as the battling in the trial courts; Len Sosnov, the pioneer for law reform; Linda Backiel, an early pursuer of police corruption cases and Brad Bridge, who made the pursuit of ‘bad cops’ a career and led to freedom for thousands who were wrongfully convicted.; training directors Mary DeFusco and Phyllis Subin; C. Darnell Jones, II and Bob Listenbee and the reform of juvenile court treatment of offenders;  and Charles Cunningham, the first  African-American in the ‘front office’ and an extraordinary lawyer.

If there is a drawback to THE DEFENDER it is the relative short shrift given to the stories of the individual lawyers.  The reader gets treated to the occasional anecdote, and those are treats; but the walls of the Defender office breathe with thousands of stories, some mundane and more that are extraordinary, and all deserve their telling.  But perhaps that is another book.

At day’s end, THE DEFENDER belongs on many bookshelves – the collections of those who work for or ‘graduated’ from this esteemed organization; anyone concerned about the history of indigent defense in the 20th and 21st  centuries; those who try and understand what zealous representation of the accused truly envisions and involves;  and anyone intrigued by the tasks and goals of a government-funded agency that has as its core mission protecting those with the fewest resources from the power of the police, the prosecution and ultimately the people at large.  Defenders represented the most despised – and THE DEFENDER brilliantly tells the story of one Defender office that – when I worked there and today – was known as among the best in the nation.





Madeira and Shaffer, THE DEFENDER, Temple University Press (2020)