Primary 2020: Public Defender

Primary 2020: Public Defender

For the first time in 30 years, Knox County voters will elect a new attorney to represent indigent defendants in court.

by scott barker • January 27, 2020
Attorney Rhonda Lee and Public Defender Eric Lutton.

Eric Lutton and Rhonda Lee are the candidates for public defender in the Republican primary, and both have stories that opened their eyes to the importance of vigorous representation for indigent criminal defendants.

Both candidates support the community law office model developed by former Public Defender Mark Stephens.

Lutton initially wanted to be a prosecutor, but when he passed the Bar exam there wasn’t an opening in the Knox County District Attorney General’s office, so he bided his time by doing indigent defense work. 

One of Lutton’s first clients was a meth-addicted prostitute who told him her story. Her parents had introduced her to pot at age 12 and her mother got her hooked on meth at 14. An uncle began molesting her, and when her mother found out, she began charging him. “In that short period of time, I decided to make a difference and help people to a better path in life,” Lutton said. 

Lee’s first client as a newly minted lawyer was a single African-American mother of three accused of theft from a store. She decided to review the store’s surveillance video, to the surprise of prosecutors who figured she would accept a plea deal on behalf of her client.

When Lee reviewed the video, she was shocked. “It wasn’t even my client,” she said. “I knew then my calling was to represent those who didn’t have an advocate.”

Both want to become just the second attorney to be elected as public defender in Knox County since the office was created in 1990. Longtime public defender Mark Stephens stepped down in October to return to private practice. Gov. Bill Lee appointed Lutton, Stephens' top deputy, to fill the position temporarily. Lutton wants to serve out Stephens’ unexpired term, which ends in 2022. Lee is a solo practitioner who specializes in court-appointed indigent defense.

Stephens’ legacy undergirds the race. He transformed the office into the Knox County Public Defender’s Community Law Office, an approach that employs social workers to help defendants address the problems that led to their arrests and reduce recidivism. 

Lee and Lutton agree that the office should continue as a community law office, which is seen as a national model. The choice, they say, lies in who is best to build on Stephens’ accomplishments.

Lutton: The Successor

A native of Muncie, Ind., Lutton moved to Knoxville after earning his undergraduate degree at Ball State University to attend the University of Tennessee College of Law. He had been smitten with East Tennessee during family vacations. 

“When I got to choose where I wanted to live, it was a no-brainer,” he said during an interview at a West Knoxville coffee shop.

Lutton worked as a private defense attorney for six years after obtaining his Tennessee law license in 2007. Then he was recruited to join the Public Defender’s Office. “I took a pretty significant pay cut when I took that job,” he said. 

In 2015, Lutton became a supervisor in the office and later Stephens’ deputy. He said managing caseloads of the office’s 27 lawyers and funding operations are perpetual challenges.

The U.S. Department of Justice and the American Bar Association place a recommended ceiling of 400 misdemeanor cases or 150 felony cases for public defenders. “Some of our attorneys are double that,” Lutton said. “We need 11 lawyers to get to the point they would say, ‘This is the most you can reasonably handle.’”

About half the office’s 71 positions — including attorneys, social workers and support staff — are funded by the state and half by Knox County. State funding has been relatively stagnant during the three decades the Public Defender’s Office has been operating, but a state law requires that if a county commission increases funding for the local district attorney’s office, it has to increase the public defender’s funding by at least 75 percent of the same amount.

The workload could lead some to believe the Public Defender’s Office just clears cases as quickly as possible without regard to the best interests of its indigent clients, but Lutton said that’s not the case. “A large misconception is that we are not going to represent our clients effectively,” he said. “I can guarantee you the Knox County Public Defender’s Office cares.”

Lee: The Challenger

Lee was born in Anderson County, but grew up in Chicago, where her father moved their family for his employment. She moved back to East Tennessee soon after high school. “My blood’s deep orange,” she said.

The law is a second career for Lee, who with her ex-husband ran a real estate and homebuilding business for 17 years. As her six children grew up and began leaving home, Lee began looking for another career. She decided to go to Pellissippi State Community College to study to be a paralegal.

“I was hooked,” she said of her first exposure to the law. “Immediately the lights turned on. This is what I was meant to do.”

It took Lee nine years to complete her paralegal studies at Pellissippi, an undergraduate degree at the University of Tennessee and a law degree from the Nashville School of Law. Along the way she worked as a paralegal and beat back a threat from lymphoma. She’s been licensed to practice law in Tennessee since 2013. 

Lee spoke about her plans for the Public Defender’s Office in the conference room of office space she shares with other solo practitioners in the First Horizon Tower downtown. She said she admires the work of the office she hopes to lead. “They have excellent attorneys there,” Lee said. “I want to bring in fresh ideas.”

Like Lutton, she sees funding as an ongoing challenge. “Money is always the issue. We’re dealing with the neediest of the needy,” she said.

Lee said she has spent time educating voters about the constitutional rights of the accused as she’s been campaigning for the office. “Just because you’re poor doesn’t mean you’re guilty,” she said. “A lot of my clients are guilty, but they need to be treated fairly.’

Lee noted that no one represents indigent defendants to get rich. “You’re not in it for the money,” she said. “The people who are in it, their hearts are in the right place.”

Community Law Office: A Holistic Approach

Stephens became convinced a holistic approach to public defense is a more effective strategy after attending a session at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in 1999. He changed the office’s name to the Knox County Public Defender’s Community Law Office four years later.

The idea was to address the domestic and socioeconomic circumstances of clients, as well as their criminal charges. The office now offers social services to its clients, a juvenile justice team for young offenders, and arts and educational programs for clients’ children. 

The model has been copied elsewhere, including statewide in Kentucky, and in 2019 the American Bar Association gave the Knox County Public Defender’s Community Law Office the Jefferson B. Fordham Award for Law Office Accomplishment.

Lutton and Lee both say they are committed to the community law office concept.

“The holistic model is the right way to run a public defender’s office,” Lutton said.

Lee said, “I’m all about getting help for mental health issues and drug issues.”

Lee, in fact, would like to see it expanded, with social services available to all indigent defendants, whether they are represented by the Public Defender’s Office or court-appointed private attorneys.

“All the resources should be available to everybody,” she said, adding court-appointed attorneys often don’t have the resources to engage social services for their clients. “It is a disservice to the community when they’re not treated the same.”

Lutton observed that while the Public Defender’s Office provides social services, its six social workers can only fill a fraction of the office’s needs as it is. “We only have enough for 10 percent of our clients,” he said.

Even while reaching a small percentage of clients, Lutton said the social workers have made a difference. An analysis of the effectiveness of the program showed the holistic approach has saved taxpayers $1.7 million a year because of reduced recidivism in misdemeanor cases alone. Harvard Law School will be conducting an in-depth study of the program over the next two years.

There are no Democrats seeking the public defender position, so the winner of the GOP primary will face independent Sherif Guindi in the Aug. 6 general election. Early voting in the primary begins Feb. 12, and primary Election Day is March 3.