June 13, 2006

WA: in Chelan County, meet the new p.d., same as the old p.d.

Longtime public defender to head new nonprofit office (site requires registration)

A Wenatchee lawyer who has provided public defense in Chelan County for 16 years is apparently the only one interested in forming a new nonprofit agency to provide the service. Keith Howard and Associates submitted the only application for creating an independent, nonprofit agency to represent indigent defendants...

Keith Howard's firm held the public defender contract at the time of the Wenatchee Witch Hunt child sex abuse cases, of which then-president Gerald B. Lefcourt of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers said,

I am deeply troubled by the wholesale violations of the civil rights of over 40 adults and 60 children that occurred in Wenatchee and East Wenatchee. You may well be asking yourself, 'Where were their defense lawyers? How could they let something like this happen?'

A civil attorney suing Chelan County on behalf of some of the wrongfully accused stated that the local criminal justice system's checks and balances failed in the Wenatchee cases while the county contracted with the Barker and Howard law firm for public defense services:

"Don't give me this hooey about checks and balances in a small town...There needs to be some sort of a monitoring system with the people who have the contract. If you are going to put money anywhere, it should be looked at and monitored."

The chief public defender for Pierce County reviewed the handling of the cases and concluded:

(I)n Wenatchee there are genuine causes for concern. And this fact is no reflection on the quality of the lawyers holding the public defender contract. Instead it reflects badly on the limited public defender budget and on the imperfect court system that is left to fill in the gaps. Because most of these defendants are indigent, budgetary constraints have severely impacted the legal defenses of the accused.