WNC gets new public defender office

Allison is the first-ever public defender in the judicial district. Donated photo Allison is the first-ever public defender in the judicial district. Donated photo

Western North Carolina courts were saddled with a sizable backlog of cases following the shutdowns related to the COVID pandemic, and while much of the overload has abated, especially in Haywood and Jackson counties, there have still been problems. 

But with the opening of a public defender office, tasked with representing indigent defendants, cases may start moving faster in the near future.  

The public defender office was approved as part of last year’s budget. The purpose of the office is to provide legal counsel to criminal defendants without the means to hire their own attorney. Many believe this is the most impactful change the judicial district has ever seen, considering the court-appointed list, currently made up of attorneys with private practices who take on indigent criminal defendants, has dwindled in recent years.

The push for a public defender office had been in the works for a while. In a December 2021 letter from the Committee on Indigent Appointments for the Superior Court Judicial District 30B — made up of Superior Court Judge Bradley B. Letts, Chief District Court Judge Roy Wijewickrama and Indigent Defense Services Executive Director Mary Pollard called attention to the worsening situation. At the time that letter was written, there were no attorneys on the court-appointed list for high-level felonies in Haywood. Up to now, attorneys on that list were typically the only means to ensure adequate representation for indigent defendants who can’t afford an attorney.

In March 2022, Letts wrote a letter to Pollard formally requesting a public defender’s office. In that letter, Letts references a bar meeting, writing that a consensus was reached among attorneys present calling for a public defender’s office.

“Our local bar has made numerous efforts and, without exception, valiantly done all which could be reasonably asked of them to assist … Haywood and Jackson counties continue to lack sufficient attorneys on the court-appointed lists and in turn regularly encounter barriers in maintaining a timely and efficient system for providing sufficient and effective legal representation and related services to indigent defendants,” the letter reads.

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To select the public defender, the bar convened and selected a nominee for the position, as did the Administrative Office of the Courts. In addition, Letts and then Superior Court judge William Coward worked together to come up with their own nomination. Ultimately, Waynesville attorney Janna Allison was selected.

Allison was sworn in as the public defender back in January, and the office started taking cases at the beginning of April. Allison has practiced as a criminal defense lawyer for 25 years, including multiple stints at Buncombe County’s public defender office. She said she was thrilled to have the opportunity to head up a public defender office and noted that the office has already made a positive difference.

“I’m excited about this opportunity,” she said. “We’re off to a great start, and we’re happy to be helping indigent defendants.”

Others have expressed excitement, as well. In an email, District Attorney Ashley Welch said she was happy to see the public defender office open.

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District Attorney Ashley Welch. File photo

“I am a longtime supporter of creating a public defender’s office for the state’s seven westernmost counties, the 43rd Prosecutorial District,” she said. “This new office goes a long way toward ensuring defendants have the required competent, professional representation guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. From a practical standpoint, I anticipate the opening of a public defender’s office will help move cases more quickly district wide.”

Likewise, Wijewickrama said the long-term effect of having the public defender office will “transform the courts for the better.” But he also agreed with Allison that he’s already seen the difference, something he said is a testament to the work she’s put in.

“Ms. Allison has done a fantastic job reaching out to local attorneys and making offers to local attorneys to come work in the public defender office,” he said.

Wijewickrama noted specifically that he was recently presiding over District Court in Clay County and there were several first appearances, situations where in the past a defendant perhaps wouldn’t yet have representation and would stumble through things like bond motions on their own.

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Chief District Court Judge Roy Wijewickrama. File photo

“We had two assistant public defenders there, so that issue was basically off the table,” he said.

To draw a contrast, Wijewickrama described a day about two years ago where he was presiding over District Court in Clay County. Like the more recent situation, he had several first appearances to hear tied to one drug case, but there weren’t enough court-appointed attorneys available, so he had to step off the bench to call lawyers from other counties to come in.

“I had lawyers from Cherokee, Macon, Jackson, Haywood and Buncombe coming in,” he said. “And that was 45 minutes away from court.” 

“I’m very excited it’s here,” he added. “I look forward to the public defender office being an integral part of our system from here forward.” 

Sometimes, the public defender office will have a conflict of interest with certain defendants. In those instances, the cases will be assigned to another defense attorney not employed by that office, meaning the few attorneys who currently take on clients by being on the court-appointed list should still have plenty of work.

Public defenders have a dedicated staff that roughly mirrors the district attorney’s. In this case, the budget includes one chief public defender, 14 assistant public defenders and seven administrative staff.

But for those who want a change of pace, employment as an assistant public defender can be rewarding and perhaps less stressful, Allison said. Along with being fully staffed and eliminating the overhead that comes with a private practice, assistant public defenders are entitled to everything state employees enjoy.

“The main difference is a steady salary and benefits,” Allison said.

In addition, because the assistant public defenders only have to focus on a county or two, there will be less travel. Right now, the main office is located in Haywood County, and they’ve either already opened or are finalizing opening offices in the district’s other counties.

“You won’t have attorneys having one hearing in Haywood and then one in Clay the same day,” she said.

The public defender’s office isn’t the only help coming to the judicial district. Under that same budget that provided for the new office was funding for a new District Court judge, the first in the judicial district in almost two decades. Both ideas had been floated in previous budgets, along with splitting the judicial district, but were ultimately shot down. The district split has still not been greenlighted.

The race for the new District Court seat came down to two Republicans, Virginia Hornsby and Assistant District Attorney Andy Buckner. Because there were no Democrats running, their primary decided who would take the new seat on the bench, with Hornsby pulling 52.77% of the vote to come away with the victory. Hornsby will be sworn in at the beginning of next year.

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