The program was derailed in January 2009 when Fred Hernandez, the county’s district attorney, shut his files on criminal defendants to the public defenders. Melissa Hagen, a native of Ohio who joined the office in 2008 as its chief public defender, was dismayed at Hernandez’s policy.
“I sort of laughed and said, ‘You’re kidding, right?’ ” Hagen said. “And he said, ‘No, I’m not.’ ”
Hernandez left the same files open to other lawyers in the region, private attorney David Ortiz confirmed.
The National Right to Counsel Committee recommends prosecutors adopt open-file discovery policies. Yet the state yields control of indigent defense practices to counties, leaving discovery policies up to prosecutors.
Elected judges in Texas also possess the sole power to appoint attorneys and approve their payments, influence that some say can confound the American Bar Association’s first principle of indigent defense — independence.This article appears to be breaking the news for the first time about the demise of Texas' first regional public defender, much less the role of the local DA in shutting down the office's access to defendants' case files. It's fairly stunning that local officials won't talk to journalists about closing the office, much less that nobody's seemingly reported on it before now. A search of the archives at the Del Rio News Herald finds no mention of the story.
Wesley Shackelford, special counsel to the task force, conceded that the state’s system of local control can stymie national standards.
Texas’ “statutory scheme doesn’t really allow for the level of independence that I think is envisioned by the American Bar Association standards,” he said. Unable to access clients’ files, TRLA attorneys watched their cases begin to clog the courts’ dockets as local judges appointed fewer cases to them.
County commissioners eventually disregarded about $68,000 in state funds that would have helped to keep the program running, said Bryan Wilson, grants administrator for the task force.
No county officials — the county judge, district attorney, assistant county attorney or county commissioners — would talk about ending the program to a reporter who traveled to Del Rio.
But task force data chronicle its demise: Judges appointed 60 percent of felonies and 73 percent of misdemeanors to public defenders in 2007. In 2009, the numbers dropped to 37 percent of felonies and 40 percent of misdemeanors. ...
Despite a bitter fight waged by local advocates, the county’s contract with TRLA lapsed in September 2009. The nonprofit agency remains in the region to complete its residual cases, but Hagen’s last day was Oct. 1. She’s moving to Nevada.