Behind the Scenes of Public Defense

An overburdened legal system means the poorest defendants can get stuck in jail for weeks or even months waiting for their case to be resolved—and are often convinced to cop a plea just to get out. The assistance of a determined defender can go a long way.

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Striking and animated in a gray suit and heels, Mary Grace Ruden strides through the Harris County Criminal Justice Center. She moves quickly, comfortably, talking with everyone in the courthouse, from janitors to opposing counsel, as if they had roomed together in college.

But then she’ll say something like how, in any given criminal case, “The facts are what they are. They’re not superfluous, exactly, but they are kind of tangential.” That’s when I’m reminded that disarmament is a great way to win a battle.

After graduating from the prestigious University of Texas School of Law, she spent a decade in private practice and was profiled twice by Texas Monthly in its annual issue on “Super Lawyers.” She made fantastic money and had her pick of interesting cases. Yet when the Harris County Public Defender’s Office started in 2010, she gave up her lucrative corporate career to work in a small sunny office on the 13th floor of the Harris County Criminal Justice Center. Like all public defenders, she is assigned cases based on whatever comes through the courts. Despite the cramped working conditions and heavy caseload, Ruden lights up when she talks about her clients.

Ruden works with all clients who are assigned to the public defender’s office and have a severe mental illness. Many of them also struggle with addiction and most, if not all, have lengthy criminal histories. They are perhaps the hardest demographic to defend successfully, not because of their problems per se, but because those problems make them the group least likely to do the two things Ruden needs most: to show up for court and not plead guilty.

On a sunny Thursday in November, photographer Patrick Michels and I followed Ruden on her lively rounds, hustling to keep up with what she apologetically called a “very light day.”

1. “The sickest of the sick”

Harris County Public Defender Mary Grace Ruden at work in downtown Houston, November 5, 2015.
Harris County Public Defender Mary Grace Ruden at work in downtown Houston, November 5, 2015.

It’s 9 a.m. and Ruden is prepping for court. Most days she has at least a few clients scheduled and gets more assigned on the fly, but this morning the opposite happens. One of the two defendants she expected to represent has hired a private attorney. This leaves her to dig into the file of the client we’ll call Mr. G.

“The gentleman is accused of theft,” she says. The state claims Mr. G and a friend conspired to steal scratch-off lottery tickets from a convenience store where the friend worked behind the counter. But despite the store owner telling police Mr. G’s role in the $200 scam was minimal, prosecutors are focusing on him.

Ruden says this happens a lot. “You have to understand, I get all my people because they have a [psychiatric] diagnosis and they’re on medication. So they can be perfectly capable and competent, but they’re probably easily manipulated.”

The clients who end up on Ruden’s docket rarely have a clean slate. The Harris County Public Defender’s Office uses an algorithm based on past convictions, as well as other factors, to analyze defendants as they enter the system and identify “the sickest of the sick,” according to Ruden. “That becomes our docket.” Mr. G has been identified by the algorithm several times already.

Still reading Mr. G’s file, she frowns. “I bet you money that the guy who didn’t get arrested doesn’t have a criminal record. My client does. When the police show up and start running names, the guy that’s been [in jail] before gets to go again.”

2. “Time is our friend”

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On the way downstairs, Ruden discusses the one advantage she and Mr. G do enjoy: he’s out on bond.

Many defendants can’t scrape together the money to bail out of jail, so they’ll take a plea to anything that gets them out and back to their jobs and families, even if they’re innocent. Ruden says this is especially true of her clients. “The homeless population, poor population, mentally ill population—none of them have clean criminal backgrounds. They would rather be free than worry about fighting a charge, so they’re willing to plead guilty to anything.”

If Ruden’s clients can’t afford their bail and won’t plead guilty, they’re likely to be stuck in pretrial detention—that is, jail—for weeks or even months while they await trial. In many cases, defendants who maintain their innocence will spend much longer in pretrial lockup than if they had pleaded guilty and served a short jail sentence. It’s a system that encourages guilty pleas, especially for the poor, whether they’re guilty or not.

But if Ruden’s clients are out on bond, she says, “they give me the luxury of doing my job: defending the case and holding the state to its proof. It’s so fun when we actually get to do it!”

In this instance, prosecutors claim to have security camera footage of Mr. G at the convenience store. Ruden isn’t taking their word for it. Once she gets the footage and scrutinizes the rest of the state’s evidence, she plans to ask for the charges to be dismissed. If that doesn’t happen, she’ll ask for the case to be “reset,” or adjourned to give her another few weeks to prepare for trial—and to wear down the prosecution’s resolve.

“In misdemeanor land, if they’re on bond, we do a lot of resetting,” Ruden says. “No state’s case ever got better with time. Time is our friend.”

3. “Any number of reasons”

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Yes, time is on the defendant’s side—unless he’s late for court.

When Ruden arrives, her client is nowhere in sight. What’s worse, the court coordinator has already called docket, making Mr. G not merely late but unlawfully absent. His file now sits in the stack with those of other defendants who did not appear in court and whose bonds will be revoked. Unless Ruden can intervene, Mr. G is going to lose his money and his freedom, and she will lose her most effective leverage: time.

None of this shows up on Ruden’s face as she breezes among the prosecutors, chatting. After one hands her a CD-ROM in a paper sleeve, Ruden makes a beeline for the elevators.

“He could still be downstairs trying to get in,” she says. “He could have just missed docket call. So what I need to do is track back up to my office and find whatever phone number he put on his bonding information. That’s what we’re going to call to see if we can get him up here today.”

If Ruden succeeds, Mr. G’s bond still might be revoked. A judge has total control over the fate of a defendant who misses docket call, no matter the circumstances that caused his or her tardiness. But if Ruden fails, bond definitely will be taken away.

“He may have a sick child,” she says. “There could be any number of reasons he’s not here. If I can get the reason, we can ask the judge to reinstate the bond. The reality is, this is somebody whose case probably should get dismissed. But if he were in custody, he would have pled by now, just to get out.”

4. “Cross your fingers”

 

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Back in her office, Ruden digs out Mr. G’s bond paperwork, looking for contact information. “Cross your fingers,” she says. “This is a big bond, by the way—a $2,500 bond, which means he had to part with at least $250, plus collateral. So we also have an economic interest in finding him.”

We, she says, as if her own money were on the line.

She squints at the paper. “And I can’t read the phone number. Gonna take a flying stab at this digit….” She dials. “Disconnected. Okay, I’ll take guesses now. Come tell me what you think this number is.”

It looks like a star. “Four?” I venture.

Nope.

This is one of several moments when someone else would get frustrated or discouraged, but Ruden doesn’t miss a beat. She keeps dialing, guessing other numbers. When that fails, Ruden calls in the big guns: the bond company. “They’ll help because they’ve got a financial interest,” she says. If Mr. G doesn’t turn up soon, they could be out more than $2,000.

5. “This ain’t what you think it is”

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While she waits for the bond company to call her back, Ruden does a little work on Mr. G’s case.

She pops a disc into her laptop. “This is the video I was just given,” she says. For the half second it takes to load, Ruden seems tense. Then a male voice says, “Yeah, we got a vehicle pulled over at East and 13th. The driver is heavily intoxicated.”

It’s not video of a convenience store. It’s audio of a traffic stop.

“I guarantee the DA has not listened to this or he wouldn’t have given it to me,” Ruden says.

“Yeah, I’m pulled over in that restaurant parking lot,” the man drawls. “Okay, thanks. I appreciate it.”

That’s the end.

“This is the state’s proof on a theft case?” Ruden sits for a moment in stunned glee. “It’s not proof of anything for anybody, let alone this case and my client.”

It’s possible the police department gave the wrong disc to the prosecutor, who passed it on to Ruden sight unseen. Or perhaps someone was betting Mr. G’s court-appointed lawyer would have him plead guilty without reviewing the disc. Whatever happened, it’s clear the state’s evidence doesn’t incriminate Mr. G.

She shakes her head. “I wish we could get ahold of my client, because, factually, I think this is one of the cases where we got ’em. We’ll take a turn by the DA to tell them, ‘This ain’t what you think it is.’ If Mr. G were here, they might dismiss it today. The fact that he’s not, I know that they won’t.”

6. “I really love this guy”

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While waiting for the bond company to call back with a number for Mr. G, Ruden studies the latest reports on her clients who are in a specialized probation program. Ruden is part of a team that works with defendants in the Harris County Felony Mental Health Court, where the program lasts up to three years and demands frequent court appearances, drug tests, and engagement in programming such as therapy and job training. But all this rigor is meant to be supportive.

“It’s really designed to get you to succeed,” Ruden says. “Relapsing is not going to get you [kicked] out. For the most part, new law violations are not going to be an automatic out. Everybody’s different and there will always be things to work on, but if you’re willing to work, to show up and try and be accountable when you fall short, by and large, you’re going to be successful.”

Ruden is sifting through a sheaf of her clients’ toxicology results. “The people that have done everything that’s expected of them will be All Stars,” Ruden says, referring to the court’s list of defendants who are succeeding in the program. “The people who haven’t won’t be. Those with more significant issues, like new cases or positive drug results, may or may not go into custody.”

Two of her probationers are already in custody, jailed on new charges. Ruden will visit them this afternoon and then attend a meeting, before court convenes, to discuss all of the probationers’ progress.

Looking at one client’s file, Ruden grins. “This fella is doing well,” she says. “He’s one of my favorite clients, because he’s not a young man. He’s in his late 50s. But when he pled into the court, he told the judge, ‘It’s not how you begin. It’s how you end.’ And I thought, ‘I really love this guy.’ ”

Moments later the phone rings. It’s the bond company with a number for Mr. G.

Ruden trails off, lost in the man’s file. “He’s doing beautifully, actually. I can’t wait for you to meet some of these folks.”

7. “Now she understands”

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“Hi,” Ruden says in a lighter, higher tone than usual after calling the number supplied by the bond company. “May I speak to Mr. G? This is Mary Grace Ruden. I’m his lawyer.” She listens. “Okay, do you know where he is? Would you give me a number? ….Okay, well, it’s pretty important. Because he posted a bond on this case, and I don’t want him to lose any money or be taken into custody.” She grins at something but keeps her voice steady and soft. “So if you have any idea about how to go about getting him, I can help you with that. Do you have a number that you’re going to call to see if you can try to find him? Okay….”

Ruden gives her name and number twice and hangs up.

“Well that was fun,” she says. At first the woman who answered the phone said she was “going to call a friend of a friend to see if she can get him.” But after hearing that Mr. G had missed court, she yelled, “Shut up!”

“I was like, sweet,” Ruden says. “Now she understands.”

8. “A good old-fashioned mystery”

Alex Bunin, the lead Harris County Public Defender, appears in the doorway. 

“Have y’all been to court?” he asks.

“We have!” Ruden says. “We’ve got ourselves a good old-fashioned mystery this morning. I have a really strong case with good evidence on our side and a missing client.” Ruden describes her phone call to Mr. G’s family members and her warning that bond would be forfeited if he didn’t get in touch with her.

Soft-spoken and smiling, Bunin started the Harris County Public Defender’s Office in 2010. His attitude toward clients was a major draw for Ruden.

“Alex is a really big proponent of holistic defense,” Ruden says. That’s the principle of connecting clients with what they need to stay out of jail, whether it’s making a referral to a psychiatrist, housing, or enrollment in a job training program.

“[I]f you’re going to really help somebody, you’re helping them in more areas than just their criminal case, you know? They need ID. They need help explaining to landlords at an apartment complex that a successfully completed deferred adjudication is not a conviction. If you can come along and do those things, you radically decrease the chances that they’re going to be your client again.” That’s the fun part, patching up the rest of it. “It gets everybody here very excited.”

Staying excited is important to Ruden. That’s why she makes challenges for herself, like trying not to plead a single case guilty for a month.

“It’s unrealistic,” she says. “And I’ve never actually been successful, because I’m not going to let anybody stay in jail just because I’ve made some little pact for myself. But I’ve come close. I’ve had months where I had 60, 70, 75 percent dismissal rates.”

“Now nobody’s going to make a little trophy or have a ticker tape parade, because everybody’s trying their best.” But Ruden wants to stay competitive for competition’s sake. “Burnout in this profession is understandable and real. I don’t ever want to settle in and not care. If I ever come to a place where I don’t care about the person, then I need to hang it up.”

9. “My Tom Cruise moment”

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At last, Mr. G calls back.

“Hi, Mr. G? Where are ya? You’re at home? Okay, we have court today. Yeah. Did you forget? You what? ….Oh goodness. Okay. All right.”

Ruden explains into the phone, “No, I don’t want you to get into trouble, but here’s the deal. We were late last time—you recall that? And now your file is sitting in the pile for bond forfeiture and your bond is big. I don’t want you to lose your bond. I don’t want you to go into custody. So I need you to get here. If you think you can get here in the next 30 minutes, great. If you don’t, then I need you to be here tomorrow, on time, and I’ll go down and ask the judge to roll the case until tomorrow if she’ll let me.”

She asks, “So which do you want to try to do? Okay. That’s fine. But that means being here before 9….” Ruden hangs up. “Sometimes you’re, like, hollering into a well, ‘Let me defend you!’” she says. “‘Help me help you’—my Tom Cruise moment.”

Ruden trots back down to the courtroom and quickly updates the judge and DA. She returns to the office triumphant. The bond won’t be revoked yet and the case will be held for tomorrow.

10. “It wasn’t me”

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After lunch, Ruden makes the short walk to the jail where two of her Felony Mental Health Court clients are in custody for new charges.

This is routine. The probation program is so long and serves people with such entrenched problems that it’s not unusual for them to get arrested along the way. But it does invert her defense style. Her default is to fight a case by forcing the state to prove guilt, as it’s supposed to do. In the probation program, however, it’s considered more important to admit mistakes than to avoid them, so fighting a new charge is risky—even if the person is innocent.

“So these fellows who’ve picked up new law violations,” Ruden says, “their best chance of staying on probation and in the court is to say, ‘Yeah, that happened. I was going through this; I was going through that.’ But what if it didn’t? What if they’re not guilty?”

Today poses a special challenge. One of Ruden’s clients, Mr. P, is charged with “public lewdness.” She’s sure of his innocence—both because “it’s not his style” and because the suspect is described as Hispanic and her client is white. She doesn’t want to add a sex charge to the rap sheet of a man who’s never had one.

In a concrete room maybe three feet by five, Ruden sits on a stool facing a thick plastic window and waits for Mr. P. Several minutes pass before a guard buzzes him in and Ruden picks up the bulky phone handset to deliver some bad news.

Before he was picked up, Mr. P had been living in a subsidized extended-stay hotel—sort of an advanced halfway house. It’s the kind of resource the Felony Mental Health Court support team helps probationers get into because if they have housing, they’re less likely to be arrested for trespass and a host of other small charges that can add up. But the hotel is paid weekly and Mr. P was in jail, so he was evicted. “Fortunately, your girlfriend was able to get in and get all your things,” Ruden says gently.

Mr. P’s face registers nothing—no surprise, relief, or distress. He just nods. She moves on to the evidence in the new case. “The witness didn’t give police a written statement,” she says. He also identified Mr. P not from a lineup but because police had shown him a cell-phone picture of Mr. P and asked if that was the same man.

Ruden gives him a moment to absorb this and says she hopes to get the case dismissed.

Again, Mr. P barely reacts. He just says, “It wasn’t me.”

11. “We’re counselors at law”

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Before court convenes, Ruden and the rest of the Felony Mental Health Court support team meet to discuss their clients’ progress. They pass around and sign a birthday card for a client and puzzle over how to get Mr. P back into some kind of housing once he’s released.

The meeting is long but lively. It could be drudgery, tossing around acronyms and program names while trying to figure out which hoops to jump through to solve, even briefly, what seem like unsolvable problems. But it’s not, because everyone is excited.

Ruden says this is what got her hooked on public service. “As much as I initially enjoyed the adrenaline of competing and of trial and the courtroom,” she says, “the aspect that appeals more to me is the job of counselor, because we aren’t just attorneys. We’re counselors at law.” The challenge she loves now, she says, “is just talking people through their situation and trying to figure out what in their life needs addressing.”

She loves the toughest cases most. “You’re dealing with people who have a lot of dysfunction. Whether it is economic dysfunction or mental illness or they’re in social situations that are not conducive to being healthy or successful—those same people that I have really enjoyed talking to and helping, aren’t really hiring lawyers. They can’t afford to.”

Thanks to the Harris County Public Defender’s Office, they don’t have to.

12. “It’s gonna get easier” 

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Felony Mental Health Court itself is not very court-like at all. Everyone stands when the judge enters in his black robes, but after that, the feeling is of a small reunion.

The judge reads names of the week’s All Stars. One by one, he calls them to the bench and asks them about their week, giving words of encouragement.

The woman he’s speaking to had some setbacks the previous week but is now an All Star. “You’re kind of on your feet again,” he says. “This is the mark that I want you to hit every week. You can’t coast. You can’t fall into that trap. It’s hard, but it’s worth doing and it’s important. You’ve shown what you can do this week. Now it’s a matter of doing it consistently.”

The woman nods, listening, close to tears. “It’s gonna get easier,” says the judge. “You have to trust me on that.”

Ruden sits at a table and watches as, one by one, her clients approach the bench to receive not punishment but a pep talk—or the comfort or cajoling they need. She doesn’t intervene and there’s no argument to make. Her clients speak for themselves.

The only other person at her table is the prosecutor. And in this instance, they’re sitting on the same side.

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Emily DePrang writes about criminal justice and public health for The Atlantic, Texas Monthly, VICE, and others. Follow her on Twitter @deprangy.

Patrick Michels is an Austin-based journalist and photographer, and a staff writer at the Texas Observer.