Miami-Dade judge blasts flawed public defender system
In unusually harsh words, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Betty Butchko blasted the flaws of the system that defends the indigent accused of third-degree felonies.
BY DAVID OVALLE
Angered by a flood of cases and overworked lawyers in her court, a Miami judge on Friday blasted the state's system designed to defend poor people accused of crimes.
''We're not in some Third-World nation where the Constitution means nothing. In this division, the Constitution means something,'' Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Betty Butchko told lawyers Friday.
Her unusually sharp words came during a hearing to assign a new lawyer for an accused car thief whose original assistant public defender, citing a swollen caseload, announced she was unprepared for trial.
Butchko's criticism comes as an appeals court weighs whether the Miami-Dade Public Defender's Office can decline new third-degree felony cases because of its thinned ranks and underfunded budget.
''I do not have the luxury to wait. Justice is not stayed pending a ruling,'' Butchko said Friday of the ongoing appeal.
The public defender's office, with about 183 lawyers, represents poor defendants who can't afford to hire private attorneys. Last June, the office sought to decline all new noncapital felony cases.
RULING ON HOLD
In September, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Stanford Blake ruled the office could refuse new third-degree felonies, a move critics say will cost taxpayers more down the road.
The Third District Court of Appeal put Blake's decision on hold while it mulls an appeal by state prosecutors. They say his ruling violates state law and Martinez hasn't proved the indigent get poor legal help.
In January, assistant public defenders began delivering notices to clients saying cases would not be prompt because of the workload.
Also this week, Martinez's office announced 47 private attorneys -- with 1,070 years combined experience -- had agreed to take over one third-degree case each from his office for no pay.
The system, right now, works like this:
An indigent defendant has their case assigned to the public defender's office. If Martinez's lawyers have a conflict -- say, a witness is also represented by the public defenders in another case -- the client is assigned to the state-funded Regional Counsel office.
If that office also has a conflict, private lawyers with state contracts are assigned to the cases.
Friday's drama revolved around Mario Escoto, 27, arrested in January for third-degree grand theft auto
This week, as his case neared trial, his lawyer, assistant public defender Karen O'Connor, asked for more time to prepare because she was juggling too many clients.
Frustrated, Judge Butchko removed her from Escoto's case, citing ''ineffective counsel.'' She appointed a private attorney, bypassing Regional Counsel -- which the judge also called stretched thin and overburdened.
The decision drew immediate criticism.
State officials refused to pay a private attorney because Regional Counsel had not been assigned the case first.
Richard Joyce, the Regional Counsel's chief assistant, blasted Butchko for unfairly assuming his office could not handle a glut of third-degree felonies cases.
He accused the judge of micromanaging his office.
Butchko finally agreed Friday afternoon to assign the case to Regional Counsel, which employs lawyer Annette Gomez to the judge's courtroom for 30 hours a week. ''I'm not micromanaging,'' Butchko said. ``I want to make sure she can handle the cases.''
Joseph George, head of the regional office, finished the hearing: ``If she is overwhelmed, we will get her help.''
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