The Missouri State Public Defender’s Office in Farmington, known as the “Fighting 24th,” recently received special distinction as the first recipient of the District Office of the Year Award.
It was noted in a press release from the agency that “the sense of camaraderie and pride that District Defender Wayne Williams instills in the office and his guidance are a few of the reasons the office has a history of winning trials. The ‘wins’ belong to everyone and the ‘losses’ are shared by all.”
“This is the first year that they came out with the award,” said Williams, “so it’s kind of interesting that Farmington is the first office to receive the award. We’re very excited about it.”
Although the physical trophy itself rests on a shelf in Williams’ office, he stressed that it’s only because his office is the most practical place to keep the award.
“It’s an award for a great team effort,” he said. “It’s not one person’s award; it’s not my award. It’s the whole office and it’s based on what we’ve accomplished together.”
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Williams also emphasized that he believes his office won this award for having highly competent attorneys for many years.
“The award was really ... these attorneys that I have in the office currently did a great job ... but really it’s a recognition of us being a successful office for many years,” said Williams.
He said the department director and upper management team started looking at statistics on the state’s trial offices from 2009 to 2015.
“In Farmington, which covers 12 counties total, we have six regular counties and six conflict of interest counties. In that time period, of all the cases that we had taken to jury trial, we had won 46 percent of our trials by acquittal and won another 14 percent by beating the plea deals that were in place before the trial. So that’s over 50 percent. They were amazed. They had no idea we had that good of a trial record.”
“There’s much more to a trial office than the wins,” said Williams. “There’s much more to the practice of law than just outright acquittals.”
Working well with and developing good relationships with prosecutors and their staff in each of the 12 counties also plays a significant role in how well Williams and his team perform and the efficiency with which they do their jobs.
He also places a high value on developing good relationships among his staff by fostering an environment where young attorneys can learn and grow into highly competent legal professionals.
“We’ve mentored a lot of attorneys here in Farmington,” said Williams. “Since I’ve been here, 20 years now, the last count that I have on the number of employees including support staff, but most of those employees were attorneys, is about 75 that have come through our office since 1996.
“In that, there've been some great attorneys come out. We’ve had attorneys that have been in our office that have went on to manage other offices. Our district defender in the Hannibal office started in Farmington. Our district defender in the Hillsboro office was from Farmington. She was my deputy district defender here for a while. And we’ve had others.”
Williams said that other public defenders have gone on to become prosecuting attorneys and judges, or have moved into private practice or joined a private law firm.
“I’ve just been blessed with talent,” he said.
Not all young public defenders use the position as a training ground, however, Williams pointed out.
“Lyn Ruess is an attorney that we received on a transfer from the St. Louis City office,” he said, “and Lyn has been in the system 20 years. I’ve known her ever since I’ve been in the system and we’re lucky to have her here because she does a really good job and she has tried a lot of cases ... 100 plus. She does a lot of second chair work and a lot of mentoring to the other attorneys and is extremely helpful.”
Although his job is primarily as an administrator, with only 10 attorneys working out of the Farmington public defender’s office Williams still takes cases on a regular basis.
“They’re very busy,” he said. “People are in and out of the office all the time. We do a lot of driving. But our people are young and the good thing about young people is they have a lot of energy and endurance.”
The six primary counties covered by the office include St. Francois, Washington, Ste. Genevieve, Madison, Reynolds and Iron. When conflicts of interest arise, Williams’ team also fills in for public defenders in Cape Girardeau, Bollinger, Wayne, Dent, Crawford and Perry counties.
“It’s a tough job; it’s really difficult,” Williams said. “The caseloads are high and it’s a very stressful job when you have the responsibility for somebody’s liberty interest within your control and what you do or don’t do has an impact on that. It’s stressful. It burns people out.
“We struggle with a lack of resources and we wish we had a lot more, because I think we could do a lot better job. But even with that we still do a good job. Our attorneys are really committed to the cause. They see the big picture. They see how important this job really is. And they’re not here for the money, obviously. They’re here for the education and training and the real-life experiences.”
Working as a state criminal defense attorney provides a rich education for young lawyers and is never boring, said Williams, although it is very different from the portrayals of attorneys in movies and on television.
“The realistic practice of law, the practical aspect of it,” he said, “ ... is only a little like what you see on television. Criminal defense lawyers, at least in our public defender system, they’re not slimy and they don’t cheat or bend the rules to get results on their cases. We follow the rules just like everybody else does. And the court is there to make sure we do.”
Williams said he and his team are proud of the work they do, regardless of any negative public perceptions of criminal defense lawyers.
“If it wasn’t for the right to counsel and your right to have a trial in this country,” he said, “... we would not be very much different from some of the enemies we’re fighting today. And that’s what makes our country great. It’s not a small thing. It’s a huge thing. Your right to confront the accuser against you. That’s not enjoyed in every country. Those rights don’t exist in some countries at all.”
Partly because the job can be thankless and because the job is stressful and demanding, the award was a welcome pat on the back for Williams and his team.
“It was a great morale booster for our trial attorneys,” he said. “These attorneys that we have that earned this award — it shows that our office is successful and it shows that we have a level of competence that is recognized inside our agency. It really means a lot to these attorneys. They work so hard. It’s not unusual to see people here until 10 o’clock at night during the week. We’re lucky and we’re grateful to be recognized as the first office to receive the award.”
Amy Patterson is a reporter for the Daily Journal and can be reached at 573-518-3616 or email@example.com.