Tag Archives: Public Defenders

THE HISTORY OF THE ROXBURY DEFENDERS – February 13, 2018 – First Church Roxbury

Last Tuesday night I, and many other people, attended an event entitled “The History of the Roxbury Defenders” at the First Church in Roxbury.  The event was cosponsored by the Roxbury Historical Society and the Unitarian Universalist Urban Ministry.  It was great. A group of four former Roxbury Defenders, and the current Roxbury Defender Attorney-in-Charge,  spoke to a large group of neighborhood residents, and many CPCS people about their experiences as attorneys of color bringing equal justice and high quality legal services to an underserved community.  The speakers were former SJC Chief Justice Roderick Ireland, former SJC Associate Justice, Geraldine Hines, former Roxbury District Court Presiding Justice, Milton Wright, former Boston Juvenile Court Justice Leslie Harris and current Attorney-in-Charge of the Roxbury Defenders, Yolanda Acevedo.  The group was moderated by long-time State Representative, Byron Rushing.  Each speaker told of their experiences that illuminated the depth of the struggle they faced and continue to face fighting for equal justice in their community.  The history of the Roxbury Defenders is fascinating and inspiring.

Former SJC Chief Justice Roderick Ireland spoke first.  Justice Ireland was the first black person appointed to the Supreme Judicial Court in 1997, more than 300 years after the formation of the Court.  The SJC was formed in 1692 as part of the charter for the Province of Massachusetts Bay.  In 1971, when Ireland was twenty-seven years old, he and Wallace Sherwood formed the original Roxbury Defenders. At the time, people in Roxbury received legal representation in criminal cases from the Massachusetts Defenders Committee, but there was no permanent public defender office in Roxbury. The Roxbury Defenders office was the first.  Sherwood and Ireland established the Roxbury Defenders in an energetic and inspired manner.  They hired a small staff and set out to be pioneers and great lawyers.  They challenged systemic issues.  At the time, pre-trial court hearings were not recorded.  Ireland and Sherwood brought a lawsuit, challenging the lack of recording. Although they did not win the case, their challenge was the first step towards the recording of all court proceedings.  Also, at that time, judges could interrupt and stop probable cause hearings if they determined they had enough evidence for probable cause.  These judicial interruptions often denied defense counsel the opportunity to complete cross-examination of prosecution witnesses or to present witnesses.  The Roxbury Defenders challenged this practice as a violation of the defendant’s right to call his own witnesses and the SJC agreed.   Aside from legal challenges, the early Roxbury Defenders sought to increase community awareness of legal issues.  They produced a local radio show, called “Legal Line”, on which they answered questions from listeners and discussed topical legal issues. By the time Ireland left the Defenders in 1974, they had established a social services department and published a weekly newspaper. They were handling about 1500 cases a year and the office eventually grew to about 12 lawyers.  Geraldine Hines and Margaret Burnham (first black woman judge in Massachusetts) were early staff attorneys.

Geraldine Hines, who was the first black woman to serve on the Supreme Judicial Court, spoke about the struggle for black women attorneys in Boston in the early seventies. Justice Hines put it politely when she said: “there were cultural issues to fight through”.   She was a Roxbury Defender in 1973 when she was sitting in a Roxbury courtroom, waiting to have her case called.  She sat until her case was the only one that had not been called.  The judge asked her: “Ms. Hines, are you a lawyer?” Hines replied: “I have sat here all day and you haven’t asked anyone else that question.” She refused to answer the question and the judge left the bench without calling her case.

Milton Wright, another former Roxbury Defender, who went on to become the Presiding Justice in the Roxbury District Court, also spoke about the struggles he faced as a black attorney in Boston.  Wright spoke about a time, in the early 80s, when he was working as a Roxbury Defender.  He went up to the lock-up to see his client.  He was blocked by a court officer, who asked: “Who are you?”  He responded: “I’m Mr. Wright, who are you?”  Wright, who is also a professional singer – he is known as the “singing judge” – always wanted to be an entertainer but said that nothing compared to being a Roxbury Defender.

Leslie Harris, another Roxbury Defender, who became a juvenile judge, spoke about his path to the Roxbury Defenders.  Harris started out as a grade school teacher in Boston and was inspired by Judge David Nelson, who was the first black person to be appointed to the federal bench in Massachusetts.  He remembers Nelson urging teachers to become probation officers so they could assist underserved young people.  Harris became a probation officer but was inspired by watching attorneys in court.  He decided he wanted to become an attorney, specifically a Roxbury Defender.  He went to law school and was soon hired as a Roxbury Defender.

Yolanda Acevedo, the current Attorney-in-Charge of the Roxbury Defenders, spoke about her long career as a Roxbury Defender.   Yolanda has been a Roxbury Defender since 1982;  her entire legal career.  She has been the Attorney-in-Charge for the last five years.  Yolanda spoke about the inspiration she has continuously received from the Roxbury Defenders, especially in her early days, when she worked with John Amabile – currently a preeminent private criminal defense attorney in Massachusetts – and Martha Reeves – currently a federal Administrative Law Judge. Yolanda also spoke of her struggle as a woman Hispanic attorney, recounting that she was asked if she was the court interpreter.

As the evening began to wind down, moderator Byron Rushing stated that things had improved for poor black people in the criminal justice system.  Justice Hines pushed back.  She said racial disparity is still a major problem in the Massachusetts criminal justice system.  She cited Massachusetts’ poor record of racial disparity in sentencing and the persistence of implicit bias in all aspects of the criminal justice system.  Yolanda also mentioned the many injustices that continue, including the imposition of extraordinarily high bails that keep accused people locked up and the persistence of minimum mandatory sentences that prevent the client’s life story from being considered by the sentencing judge.

This event drew a large group of people from the community and from CPCS.  The Roxbury Defenders is an institution in Roxbury and is part of the proud history of CPCS and a tribute to its fight for equal justice.  Here are some photographs from the event.

MBA Recognizes CPCS Attorney With 2017 Access to Justice Defender Award

On May 4, 2017, Public Defender Division Staff Attorney Rebecca Jacobstein received the Massachusetts Bar Association’s 2017 Access to Justice Defender Award for her  work on behalf of clients affected by the misconduct of a state drug lab chemist in Western Massachusetts.

Rebecca and her husband and mother were present at the MBA Annual Dinner to receive the Award.

Congratulations Rebecca.  Thank you for the work you do for our clients.

You can listen to a podcast of Rebecca discussing her work on the fallout from the drug lab scandal HERE.

Here is a photograph of Rebecca receiving the award from MBA President Joseph Catalano.

2017 Access to Justice Award Winner: Rebecca Jacobstein

Here is the text of the nominating letter.

We nominate Attorney Rebecca A. Jacobstein of the Committee for Public Counsel Services for 2016-2017 Massachusetts Bar Association  Access to Justice Award – Defender Award.

Attorney Jacobstein is a CPCS staff attorney in the Appeals Unit of the Public Defender Division.

For the last three years, she has been relentless in the pursuit of justice for her clients and thousands of other people affected by the Sonja Farak Amherst Drug Lab scandal.

Sonja Farak was a chemist in the Department of Public Health’s State Laboratory in Amherst, Massachusetts. Ms. Farak apparently suffered from a drug addiction while employed as a drug analyst at the Amherst Lab.  She was convicted of stealing and tampering with drugs at the lab. An investigation, conducted by the Massachusetts Attorney General, has revealed that Ms. Farak routinely was high on drugs during her working hours at the drug lab.  As a result of Ms. Farak’s misconduct, many people have been convicted of crimes and sent to prison.  Initially, it was believed that Sonja Farak’s misconduct only affected a small number of cases.  Now, as a result of Rebecca Jacobstein’s work (together with Northampton attorney Luke Ryan), we know that it is likely that Ms. Farak’s misconduct occurred over the course of many years and affected thousands of people.

In 2014, Attorney Jacobstein had just begun working as a staff attorney in the CPCS Public Defender Division Appeals Unit. The Chief of the Appeals Unit assigned Attorney Jacobstein to represent, on direct appeal, two men who had been convicted of drug related crimes in which Sonja Farak conducted the chemical analysis: Erick Cotto and Jermaine Watt.  In the Cotto case, Attorney Jacobstein obtained direct appellate review in the Supreme Judicial Court.  The Cotto case turned out to be a watershed in the litigation involving the Amherst Drug Lab. On April 8, 2015, the Supreme Judicial Court issued an opinion calling for a full investigation into the scope and timing of Farak’s misconduct. Commonwealth v. Cotto, 471 Mass. 97 (2015).  After the decision in Cotto, the Attorney General’s Office appointed former Superior Court Judge Peter Velis as a Special Assistant Attorney General to conduct the investigation.

Meanwhile, in the Watt case, in which direct appellate review was denied, Attorney Jacobstein stayed the appeal and brought a series of motion in the Superior Court seeking to document the timing and scope of Farak’s misconduct.  The efforts of Attorneys Jacobstein and Ryan were described in Slate:

Two defense attorneys, Luke Ryan and Rebecca Jacobstein, subpoenaed

Farak’s medical records to see if their clients had been affected, and found

that her drug use and theft had extended all the way back to 2004, eight

full years before the state claimed it began.  They contend that this new

evidence warrants a review of all 29,000 samples Farak claimed to have

tested during her career.  They also claim the government concealed this

“smoking gun” evidence from defense attorneys.

Dahlia Lithwick, Crime Lab Scandals Just Keep Getting Worse, Slate (Oct. 29, 2015).

On April 1, 2016, the Attorney General’s Office released its report on the scope and timing of Farak’s misconduct. The report described serious and significant misconduct on the part of Farak, beginning in late 2004 or early 2005 and lasting until Farak’s arrest in January, 2013.

At a hearing in Hampden Superior Court on June 6, 2016, Berkshire District Attorney David Capeless, the President of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association, stated that all eleven District Attorneys agreed that Farak defendants were entitled to the same conclusive presumption of misconduct furnished to defendants affected by Annie Dookhan’s misconduct in the case of Commonwealth v. Scott, 467 Mass. 336 (2014).

A second report, conducted by retired Judge Velis concluded that there was “no evidence of prosecutorial misconduct or obstruction of justice” in matters related to the Farak case. Attorney Jacobstein and her colleagues have submitted documents and affidavits that challenge that conclusion.  They have filed motions to dismiss Farak convictions based on prosecutorial misconduct.  Evidentiary hearings into the allegations of prosecutorial misconduct and the scope and effect of Farak’s wrongdoing on thousands of tainted convictions will begin on December 12, 2016, in Hampden Superior Court.  These hearings have the potential to reveal prosecutorial misconduct and lead to the reversal of thousands of tainted drug convictions.  These hearings are happening, in large part, because of the outstanding legal work of Attorney Jacobstein, who took her early assignment to two direct appeals and turned it into a zealous pursuit of justice for thousands of people.

Gideon Anniversary – Why the Rights of the Accused Matter

Although the American tradition of providing a zealous defense, even for unpopular defendants, goes back to John Adams, it was not until March 18, 1963, that the U.S. Supreme Court declared that Clarence Earl Gideon had not received a fair trial because he was too poor to afford counsel.  Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335  The ruling was momentous because it guaranteed the right to counsel to every person, regardless of economic or social status.  Writing for a unanimous court, Justice Hugo Black declared, “In our adversary system of criminal justice, a person [hauled] into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him.  This seems to be an obvious truth…. lawyers in criminal court are necessities, not luxuries.”

Here is what the right to counsel means today:  On February 10, 2016, George Perrot was released from prison after serving 30 years for a crime he did not commit.  He got out because of a dedicated team of pro bono lawyers and public defenders that fought for justice, even though their client appeared to be guilty of a heinous crime.  They were a team that stood up to a prosecutor who had engaged in what the court called egregious misconduct; a team that listened to him and exposed the junk science that helped lead to his conviction; a team that humanized him before a judge with the courage to correct a grave injustice.  In the process, this dedicated team of advocates even brought a measure of vindication to the victim of the crime, who insisted from the outset that the police arrested the wrong man.  In seeking justice for Mr. Perrot, these lawyers defended all of us from the misuse of forensic evidence, the abuse of governmental power, and an undermining of the public trust in our court system.

This is important because, popular culture aside, the majority of people in need of public defenders are not drug lords, murderers, or even dangerous.  Rather, most indigent who are accused are homeless, have problems with substance use, are veterans with PTSD, or are struggling with mental illness.  They are young people caught up in delinquency procedures because they have been underserved by their school systems.  They are your friends, family, and neighbors charged with relatively minor, non-violent offenses, and are at little or no risk of chronic court involvement.  However, without an effective attorney those involved in the court process – regardless of the severity of the alleged crime – are at great risk of losing housing, being excluded from school, losing their driver’s license, paying substantial fees and fines, being deported, being involuntarily confined to a mental health facility, or losing their children.  This system continues the cycle of poverty that in particular affects urban communities of color.  The modern public defender not only protects the legal rights of the accused, he or she also helps clients become productive citizens by getting them into school, setting them up in drug treatment, arranging for parenting classes or anger management, helping vets get housing and medical care, and so much more.

I have the privilege to serve as Chief Counsel of the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS), the Massachusetts public defender agency.   Every day I am reminded of how lucky I am to be able to work with the dedicated lawyers, social workers, investigators, and other professionals that make up the indigent defense bar in Massachusetts.  These lawyers, many of whom are private attorneys who accept court appointments for very little money, dedicate themselves to advising and advocating on behalf of each and every client they are assigned.  In reality, they are fighting for the right of all of us to live in a society in which everyone is treated fairly regardless of our wealth, race or social standing, regardless of our age or mental status, and regardless of what bad acts we have been accused of committing.  Fairness is the most fundamental value underlying a democratic society and a healthy public defender system is a critical component of a fair and effective court system.