Originally created 112908
| Click-2-Listen |Public defender-elect fires 10 seasoned attorneys
At first blush, the criterion for recent personnel cuts by Public Defender-elect Matthew Shirk appears to be notable success defending criminally accused people who are too poor to hire their own lawyers.
The list of 10 lawyers fired by Shirk - who defeated incumbent Bill White on Nov. 4 - reads like a who's who of the Jacksonville-based office's stars.
Gone are Ann Finnell and Patrick McGuinness, the subjects of an Oscar-winning documentary for defending falsely accused teenager Brenton Butler in 2000. Butler was exonerated after they convinced a jury that Jacksonville police beat his murder confession out of him, then tipped detectives to the real killers.
Gone, too, is Lisa Steely, longtime chief of the office's juvenile division and recognized statewide as an expert in delinquency.
And gone is veteran homicide attorney Alan Chipperfield, who was so committed to defending the poor that he took a pay cut to return to the office in the '90s after a stint with a private firm.
But Shirk said Friday the criterion was budgetary, pure and simple. The people cut earned about $1.2 million in salary; McGuinness makes about $130,000.
The lawyers learned of the firings when a member of Shirk's transition team sent White an e-mail Nov. 21, listing them and three other employees who wouldn't be asked to stay when Shirk takes office Jan. 6.
According to a copy obtained by the Times-Union, the e-mail misspelled two lawyers' names - McGuinness and Susan Yazgi.
"It is beyond me how anybody could even contemplate a decision like this," said Thomas Fallis, who opened his own law office after working as an assistant public defender in the 1980s. "To deplete a dedicated corps of public servants runs against all management principles."
McGuinness said Shirk never interviewed the lawyers, and Shirk said he didn't look at their personnel files until after the personnel decisions were made.
First election for the office
This year's election was the first for an office created in 1963 to represent indigent defendants in Duval, Clay and Nassau counties. For nearly 40 years, Public Defender Lou Frost never had an opponent. White, who was Frost's chief assistant since 1976, took over in 2005, also without political opposition.
That long-term stability may account for much of the angst in the criminal defense bar over Shirk's firings, Chief Circuit Judge Donald Moran said. Other circuits haven't had that luxury, he noted.
Moran said he presumes the decisions weren't based on personality but on management and budget issues, which are affecting court offices around Florida. He said Shirk should be able to hire two or three young lawyers for the price of one of the more experienced attorneys he let go.
"It's not the way I would have done it, but I think that's what it is," Moran said.
Others have a different view.
"Just about all of these people had significantly more trial experience than Mr. Shirk, and I think he kind of felt uncomfortable supervising them," McGuinness said.
He also blamed Shirk's endorsement by the police union, noting several of the lawyers let go were among the most aggressive at questioning officers in court.
Chipperfield said Shirk told the staff after his election that the determining factors for who remained would be loyalty to him and his team.
"He didn't say loyalty to the mission of the office or dedication or hard work or any of those things," Chipperfield said.
Questions about the office
Shirk said many of those let go had made statements about not wanting to work for him. Finnell, for example, resigned shortly after the election, only to rescind her resignation before Shirk dismissed her.
Shirk and State Attorney-elect Angela Corey denied speculation that he consulted her on the personnel moves. Her only involvement, Corey said, was to call one lawyer she heard was leaving to talk him into staying.
Several throughout the legal community expressed concern about the quality of legal services the office will be able to provide and the appellate cost to the public after losing more than 300 years of experience.
"In these economic times, the demands on that office are going to be tenfold what they are now," Fallis said. "If the system is going to work, you need to have the best on both the prosecution side and the defense side."
For instance, counting White, the office had eight lawyers qualified by the state to try death penalty cases; the firings leave three, and two of those are assigned to Clay and Nassau counties.
Will work be as good?
But Shirk said he already has replaced one of those positions: Longtime defense attorney Refik Eler will replace Chipperfield as the head of homicide and serve as chief assistant public defender. Eler is death-penalty qualified.
"There's a lot of very good, very experienced attorneys there who I feel are going to step into those roles," Shirk said.
Moran said he doesn't foresee a sharp increase in reversals, namely because most are based on mistakes by prosecutors and judges, not defense lawyers.
"The quality of representation will not be as great," he said, "but as you bring lawyers along, and they try cases, hopefully they get to that point."
As for those leaving, most will now have to consider work in the private sector.
Finnell and McGuinness are forming their own law firm with another assistant public defender choosing to leave. Chipperfield has applied for a vacancy on the 1st District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee. White said he is exploring several opportunities.
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