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Officials say public defenders system on verge of collapse

Should a St. Francois County man charged with serious crimes be represented by the public defender’s office or should he be denied a public defender because he was represented by a private attorney at one point in his case?

That is the issue the Missouri Supreme Court heard Tuesday.

In 2007, Steven Roloff was charged in St. Francois County with first-degree assault and abuse of a child. His family paid Chris Hartmann to represent him.

In 2008 before the case was to go to trial, the attorney withdrew from the case, citing several reasons. Circuit Court Judge Kenneth W. Pratte allowed the attorney to withdraw. Roloff, who is out of jail on a $60,000 bond, claimed he didn’t have the money to hire another lawyer so the judge appointed the public defender’s office to represent him.

The Public Defender Commission has objected to the appointment based on its own eligibility regulation that a public defender will not represent an indigent defendant who has at one time hired a private attorney in the pending case.

According to its Web site, the Missouri Public Defender system is responsible for providing legal representation to all indigent citizens accused of or convicted of crimes in Missouri. A total of about 350 attorneys handle about 90,000 cases each year.

The system has been in crisis for the past few years and is on the verge of collapse, according to top officials. Wayne Williams, the district defender for the Farmington office, has said the Missouri Public Defender System is attempting to limit their caseload by taking control of their caseload and refusing cases.

Williams said the problem for years has been that public defenders’ caseloads are increasing but funding and therefore, staffing, has not. He said this creates a conflict with the office’s attorneys who have an ethical obligation to properly investigate each case and defend their clients. A person has the right to effective assistance of counsel.

On Tuesday, arguments were made by Dan Gralike who is representing the Public Defender’s Office and by Assistant St. Francois County Prosecuting Attorney Pat King who is representing Judge Pratte in the matter. Roloff and his public defender were not present for the arguments.

Gralike has argued the judge abused his discretion in appointing the public defender to this case because Roloff had the means to and did obtain private counsel at one time. It was also argued that the judge should not have allowed the private attorney to withdraw just before trial.

King argued Roloff is indigent or unable to hire new counsel so the judge was correct in appointing a public defender.

The case was taken under advisement.

Roloff, 22, whose last known address is Nixa, is accused of shaking a 3-month-old baby, causing serious and permanent injuries.

The baby was taken to the hospital in March of 2007 and hospital staff told police the child had suffered from occipital hematoma, left occipital skull fracture, seizures, respiratory problems and bilateral retinal hemorrhaging, which was consistent with shaking a baby.

If convicted, Roloff could be sentenced from 10 to 30 years or life in prison on the first-degree assault charge and up to seven years in prison on the child abuse charge.

The case is scheduled for a trial setting in December.

The Supreme Court also heard another public defender-related case. The case involves Boone County’s public defender’s office’s decision not to accept new probation revocation cases.

The Court also heard other cases such as MC Development Company LLC v. Central R-3, Farmington R-7 and then-County Assessor Damon Black (now deceased.) The case involves a dispute over which school district a property lies in.

The company and Farmington School District are appealing a decision by the trial court based on information from the county assessor that the land lies in the Central district. They argue the court should have relied on the Farmington school district map, not on the county assessor’s map.

Teresa Ressel is a reporter for the Daily Journal and can be reached at 573-431-2010, ext. 179 or at

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