First Person: Montgomery County Public Defender Emily Livingston

Working to be a voice for people who aren't used to having one.
Photograph by Benjamin C. Tankersley

“Can counsel please approach?” The judge summoned me and the prosecutor to the bench, the phone to her ear. “The sheriff says Mr. King doesn’t wish to come up for the verdict because, quote, ‘I ain’t gonna be held responsible for some BS I ain’t got nothing to do with. Tell my lawyer to file the appeal.’ ”

“Well, that’s not very optimistic of him,” I said, attempting a bit of levity.

I’m a public defender in Montgomery County. A woman once asked, “So you enjoy defending the scum of the earth?” Occasionally I get “Wow, that’s so good of you” or “Great way to hone your skills before going to a firm.” Often I hear, “How do you sleep at night?” The truth is I’ve never slept better—it’s exhausting work. I once represented 25 clients in one day, sprinting among courtrooms. Five cases were set for trial that afternoon; I’d made it through three when I was told that the courtroom staff couldn’t be kept past 7 pm.The judge in Mr. King’s case asked me: “Okay, well, do you want to talk to him?”

“I don’t think so,” I said.

To say my client and I had a tumultuous relationship would be generous. It was a simple marijuana-possession case, made far more complicated by the challenge of managing him. I thought his absence from the courtroom that day might be preferable.

The stories of indigent clients are often too unbelievable to make up. I had a case in which an employee at the Montgomery County Executive Office Building called animal control to remove a creature rustling around in the dumpster outside. It turned out to be a sleeping homeless man, who became my client when he was arrested for trespassing.

It’s an extraordinary thing to be an advocate for those who aren’t used to having people speak up for them, to be a buffer between the police and the prosecutors who believe these people belong in jail. Sometimes they do. One client had tried to hijack a car but, after pulling the driver from the vehicle, realized that it was a stick shift, which he couldn’t drive. He made it 50 feet. I represented a man whose neck had been permanently scarred when he was shocked with a Taser. An officer had seen him pour a beer into his water bottle—an open-container infraction—before riding away on his bike. The cop activated his siren, drove onto the sidewalk, and knocked the guy off of his bike. He could see there was something in the man’s mouth, so he Tasered him, causing a glass smoking pipe to shatter. The cop charged him with possession of drug paraphernalia.

I’m sometimes outraged by the injustices faced by clients. I’m frustrated by their inability to cope with their poverty, their addiction, their mental illness, their bad judgment. I want to shake them, give them a job, rewrite the laws. But I’m a public defender, so I defend.

The jury in Mr. King’s case filed in, the judge having granted my motion to waive his presence for the reading of the verdict. The clerk asked the foreperson: “How do you find the defendant?”

“Not guilty.”

I stood there for a moment, shocked. Then I thought of the one person who’d be even more surprised than I was, and I couldn’t wait to tell him.This article appears in the May 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.

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