Life as Public Defender/Veterans Court

KIM SEGAL

Editor’s Note:  The high profile trials of Manuel Noriega, Timothy McVeigh, OJ Simpson and George Zimmerman are among the important legal stories Kim Segal covered as a journalist for over two decades on CNN. While working as a producer for CNN, she began attending law school at night, and was admitted to the Florida Bar in 2005. At 46, she left her television career for a position as a Public Defender in Broward County, Florida. Kim also publishes reports, including this one, on cbsnews.com. 

BROWARD COUNTY, Fla. — There are many cases that consume my thoughts but one that had been on my mind for weeks involved a client who in his 60s. His charge had to do with a driving offense and his history behind the wheel is not so great.

I had asked the State to take the jail time out of the probation offer they extended. I made it known that my client no longer owns a car and his driver’s license had been permanently revoked. I explained jail is no place for this man, even if it’s just for a few days.

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Veterans Court in Broward County, Florida KIM SEGAL

Unfortunately, this time my plea to receive a better offer for my client backfired. After reviewing the case file — at about 60 pages it’s larger than most misdemeanors — the State told me they were going to increase the amount of jail time in their offer if my client didn’t take a plea at his next hearing.

I was nervous because it wasn’t a great case to take to trial. I knew if we lost at trial this man could be sentenced to more time in jail than the State’s increased offer.While talking to my client I found out he served in the military. He is a Vietnam Veteran. I told him I needed proof of his service because we may have another option, Veterans Court.

Veterans Court was started in Broward County about three years ago for those who are honorably discharged from the military.The presiding judge is a U.S. Army Reserve Colonel and a decorated veteran of the war in Iraq. It is a therapeutic environment where Judge Edward Merrigan first asks the doctor who is provided by the local VA, not the attorney, for an update on how the client is doing. It is a terrific program available to veterans charged with certain crimes.

The clients in this court are given individualized plans they must complete. These plans often include participating in substance abuse treatment, classes tailored to their specific needs, and/or therapy sessions that they must attend.

After a year of successful completion the charges are dismissed.

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Veterans Court in Broward County, Florida KIM SEGAL

This was exactly the program I needed for my client.Not only would it be a good environment for him but it would keep him out of jail.

I pulled up the administrative order that outlines the rules and eligibility for a case to be transferred to Veterans Court.

Then I received the paperwork from my client, the proof I needed to show he served his country. I was cautiously excited as I looked over his discharge papers. I was searching for two words and thankfully they were there: “Honorable Discharge.”At our next hearing I proudly call my client to the podium. This is when the State heard for the first time that we would not be accepting their lower jail offer that was to expire that day. “Your Honor,” I say, “we are requesting that this case be transferred to Veterans Court.” After a few questions the judge granted the request.

I was relieved and so was this man who has served his country and deserved this special treatment. His elation was obvious — he didn’t even wait to leave the podium before he planted a kiss on my cheek.

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Link to story: http://cbsn.ws/1MoxMsX