This is part of an ongoing series where the Pioneer will be meeting with County department heads to learn what their departments do.
La Paz County has a new Public Defender, but he’s a familiar face in the county courts. Veteran attorney Daniel Terrell was officially appointed at the Oct. 7 Board of Supervisors’ meeting. He replaces the late Arthur Higgs, who died July 27.
In his career, Terrell has been both a prosecutor and a defense attorney. A graduate of the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash., he spent eight years in the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, and was then a defense attorney for 10 years. He has been with La Paz County for nine years, and has served as a misdemeanor prosecutor and as the prosecutor in the Veterans’ Court.
Terrell said the job of the Public Defender is to represent individuals in cases where state statute says they should be represented by an attorney but who cannot afford to hire one. He acknowledged there are a lot of people who can’t afford to hire a lawyer.
“It’s tough to hire an attorney,” he said.
Arizona Counties are authorized to appoint public defenders by state law, ARS 11-581.
A second Arizona statute, ARS 11-584, lists the circumstances under which a public defender could be appointed to represent an indigent client in the courts. These include all criminal cases in the superior court and justice courts, extradition hearings, mental disorder hearings, involuntary commitment hearings, and juvenile delinquency proceedings.
The full list of a public defender’s duties can be found under Arizona Revised Statutes at azleg.gov.
The right to legal counsel in the United States is guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The question of how to provide counsel for those defendants who can’t afford an attorney was an issue for many years. While free counsel was provided to defendants in federal cases, this was not always the case in state courts.
In Powell v. Alabama (1932), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the State of Alabama denied due process to defendants by not providing them access to adequate counsel. In Gideon v. Wainwright (1963), the Supreme Court ruled the Constitutional right to free counsel applied also to the state courts, including misdemeanor cases. The right to free counsel is one of the specific rights police officers must inform defendants about when they reading them their “Miranda” rights during or after an arrest.
Currently, 43 states and the District of Columbia have public defenders for defendants who can’t afford legal counsel.
The La Paz County Public Defender’s Office has 282 cases pending at this time, Terrell said. He said that number might actually be too low. He said the office had not been taking on new clients since Higgs died.
There are cases when it could be a conflict for a public defender to represent a client. Terrell said that would be when outside “conflict” attorneys are hired.
Terrell said there are many different ways a conflict could arise. He said it’s mostly because of what an attorney may know about a client.
“It’s what the attorney knows of the secrets of the client,” he said.
Terrell said his office works with the County Attorney’s Office in regards to just plea agreements or dispositions of cases. If every case went to trial, Terrell said there wouldn’t be enough courtroom time.
“The County Attorney is charged with getting justice,” Terrell said. “The Public Defender’s job is to represent defendants and protect their rights. We’re both looking for a just outcome. That’s not an easy task.”
In addition to Terrell, there are two other attorneys working for the Public Defender’s Office. He said they are looking for a fourth attorney. There are also four people on their staff.
As an attorney, Terrell said it’s his duty to do the best job he can for his clients. That included the state when he was a prosecutor and criminal defendants as a defense attorney.
“It’s my honor to provide good legal representation to my clients,” he said.