Public Defender

By Corey Burns


Law school doesn’t prepare you for the day-to-day practice of law, especially if you’re a public defender. Realizing this was actually kind of a relief for me because I spent all of law school on academic probation and graduated last in my class.  I mean, all you read in criminal procedure classes are these cases where the cops forgot to read someone their rights or did an illegal search, so a lawyer got his client off. You develop an expectation that cops screw shit up a lot. The reality is, those cases are pretty rare, which is what makes them famous cases. The cops don’t make the same mistake twice. So, all the stuff I was supposed to have learned turned out to be kind of useless.

The reality is, I mostly see the same people getting arrested over and over, and they know the system as well as the lawyers.  And some of them are cool about it. I remember a guy I represented years ago who was charged with burglary and he treated it like I would treat a speeding ticket. “Yeah, I did it, I fucked up. But, you know, I haven’t been in trouble for a long time. I have this job now and a kid I’m raising.  Can you get me a deal?” I think I got the guy a deal because he confessed to the cops and didn’t give them a hard time, and he hadn’t been in trouble for a while. I got the burglary knocked down to attempted burglary. It was still a felony, but he got probation and he was happy with me. You’d be surprised what makes a client happy.

For the first year and a half I practiced law, I was a prosecutor. I was best friends with the deputy public defender at that time. We were like that sheepdog and the coyote from the cartoons who’d carpool to work, clock in and then spend the day fighting each other over the sheep, break for lunch together, and then go back to fighting over the sheep again. He was the sheepdog, I was the coyote and the criminal defendants were the sheep. Imagine that.

Anyway, one night his girlfriend sent us out for milk and eggs. On the way back from the store, he wanted to stop off at this bar. It was known for fights and stabbings, and there were rumors of prostitution going on in the place. I had prosecuted people charged with committing crimes there.  My buddy had defended those people. So, I didn’t know why he would want to stop there. Plus, I kept reminding him, we had dairy with us. We couldn’t let the milk and eggs sit in the car.

He wouldn’t let it go, so we went in, sat down, and ordered a couple beers. The music blared, so we could hardly talk, we just drank our beers. Then, my friend got this look on his face that scared me. He leaned across the table and yelled oh shit into my ear. He proceeded to tell me, yelling into my ear, that a man behind me kept staring at him. It was a former client who’d just gotten back from doing six to eight years in the Department of Corrections on something, I don’t remember what it was he did.

My friend finished telling me this and then there he was, his former client, standing next to us. We looked up at him. The guy smiled, bent down and shouted into my friend’s ear. The guy walked back to his table and my friend smiled and leaned over to me. “He wants us to join him, so he can buy us some beers.” Turns out, the guy had a co-defendant who had been represented by another lawyer. That guy got twelve to fourteen years. So, as far as this guy was concerned, my friend was a hell of a lawyer.  

We had three or four beers with the guy before we left. The milk and eggs were fine.

Not long after that, my buddy left the public defender’s office to open his own practice. I moved from the county attorney’s office to take his position as the deputy public defender. It suited me better.

A couple of years into the new position I got this case. It was a DWI case. DWI cases are like playing roulette. You can’t win. This was a female client in her late twenties or early thirties.  She had a defense most DWI client’s don’t have.

You see, you don’t actually have to be driving a car to get a DWI. You have to be “in the actual physical control of a motor vehicle while on the public streets or highways.” I’ve represented guys who come out of a bar, piss drunk, not wanting to get a DWI, so they climb into their car or truck, parked on a city street with the intention of sleeping it off before driving home. The problem is, they are behind the wheel, they have the keys, sometimes in the ignition. They are in “actual physical control” of the motor vehicle.  Cops bust guys for this. And it sticks.

But this woman hadn’t been behind the wheel of her car. She was in the backseat of her car, on the shoulder of a back road, naked. The guy with her was also naked and they weren’t sleeping anything off when the cops rolled up behind them.

She was in my office, across my desk from me as I read her report. She was sheepish. I was excited. Not so much because of the sex stuff but because I thought the prosecution would have a hard time proving she’d been in control of the vehicle when there was another person there, and neither had been in the driver’s seat and neither had had the keys.  This was the first DWI case to ever come across my desk that I thought I could win. I told her the defense strategy, which she should have been glad to hear because her blood alcohol level had been more than twice the legal limit, which meant she would have to do two days in jail even if she got probation. She was not happy.

“So, I’ll have to go to trial?”

“Yeah, but we will win at trial. I know it.”

“Well, I’ll just plead guilty then.” I gave her a look. “If we go to trial, my fiancé will want to be there to support me.”

“Yeah, we will probably need him there to testify because he was in the car too.”

“But, he wasn’t in the car with me. So, I don’t want him there at trial to hear all of this.”

I pleaded her out, she did two days of jail and a year of probation and lost her license for nine months or maybe a year, I don’t remember. That was about thirteen years ago.

Some days I wonder about her marriage.

My job has a lot to do with alcohol and drugs. Drugs and alcohol don’t just affect my clients. There’s a reason it took me eleven years to get my bachelor’s degree. And it may have had something to do with why I didn’t do so well in law school. And it didn’t stop after I became a public defender in a small town in the middle of Nebraska. It may have gotten worse.  

My weekend drinking started on a Wednesday or Thursday night. I’d be up until two or three in the morning, drinking at home after the bars closed, barely able to drag myself to work and court in the morning.

One morning, in court, I was at the defense table calling off the names of clients from the stack of files in front of me. Many of them had never bothered to come see me before court, so I was meeting them for the first time.  A client took the seat next to me. I could barely hold my head up or keep my eyes open. My head throbbed. The judge looked over his glasses at me and said in front of the whole packed courtroom, “You’ve been drinking, haven’t you?”  My heart stopped, and I searched for words. As a lawyer, I thought I had mastered the ability to think on my feet and come up with an answer to any unexpected question a judge might ask. But I didn’t know how to answer this question. I turned words over in my head. I needed to explain that, while I was hungover, I was not still drunk.

My entire career flashed before my eyes.

Then I heard my client say, “Yes, Your Honor.”  

I looked at my client for the first time; a man charged with assault and disturbing the peace. The smell of stale beer on him overpowered my own alcoholic scent. I took a deep breath and relaxed. Turns out, a deputy had noticed my client was drunk and had told the judge. The judge wasn’t even looking at me when he had asked the question. He was looking at my client.

So I kept my job.

Not long after that, I got on antidepressants, quit drinking and started dating a nice social worker I’d worked with over the years. We got engaged, bought a house, got married and had some kids. When my oldest daughter was two and a half months old, I lugged her into court in her baby carrier during a first-degree murder trial and sat her down right behind my client. But that’s a story about a client who wasn’t happy with what he got.



Corey Burns is a public defender in central Nebraska where he and his wife Jeannie are raising three young daughters. He self-published a novel, Hick Lawyer, in June of 2018.

2 responses to “Public Defender”

  1. Denise Quick says:

    Wow. A true acclamation of your experiences. As a social worker myself hopefully you learned where to draw barrier lines while keeping your sanity. You have to know when to wear the hat and qhen ro take it off as Im aurw your wife can confirm.

    Good luck in your endeavors

    • Corey says:

      Thanks. This is a big part of our marriage’s success. She isn’t a social worker any more, but because of her experience she gets me and she understands what my days at work are like.

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