Dec. 4 2018 07:06 AM

County recommends prosecutor for public defender


TUESDAY, DEC. 4 — A prosecutor will likely become Ingham County’s chief public defender.


An interview panel including six county commissioners yesterday evening recommended that Assistant County Prosecutor Russel Church take the reins of a yet-to-be established, countywide Public Defender’s Office. His decades of trial experience ultimately gave him an edge on the other five applicants, commissioners explained.


“He has that knowledge of working with attorneys, working with the judicial system. His time in the prosecutor’s office gives him the perspective of the other side of the coin,” explained Commissioner Bryan Crenshaw. “He knows the system and what needs to be done to get the best defense for the clients.”


Although Church was unanimously recommended by the panel for the job, the final decision will still rest with the full county commission. Commissioner-elect Carol Koenig — who resigned in October to also apply for the gig — was the next best choice, officials voted. The board is expected to finalize the hiring process Tuesday.


Church graduated from Chicago-Kent College of Law in 1982 and served as an active duty lawyer with the U.S. Army for years before moving to a private firm to focus on criminal defense, military law and general litigation. He then served as a judge advocate for the U.S. Army before he retired from the post after 20 years in 2001.


A district court in Tennessee later hired Church to work as an assistant public defender, where he was said to have been involved with more than 300 jury trials — including 17 cases of first-degree murder. He has also worked as an adjunct professor, primarily focusing on trial skills, since 2008 at Thomas M. Cooley Law School.


Church also serves as one of several assistant prosecuting attorneys with Ingham County and has additional assignments with specialty courts involving domestic violence, substance abuse and veterans’ treatment. It’s a position that Church will undoubtedly need to vacate should he formally receive the job as public defender.


The 37 employees (including 26 attorneys) that will eventually be hired to work in the county’s new public defender office will require a “passion” for criminal defense above all else, Church explained in his limited, 45-minute interview session. And Church said he has the experience needed to implement that dedication.


“It doesn’t matter what role you’re fulfilling in that office,” Church explained to the interview panel. “You have to believe in the mission of the office. For the lawyers, that’s good legal analysis. I can teach you most of the other skills I think you need to be a good trial attorney. Analysis is one that sort of becomes embedded.”


Church admittedly lacks some experience on the defense side of the table but demonstrated a knowledge of the judicial process. He emphasized the importance of diversity in hiring and also indicated that he wants to bring in a mix of seasoned legal professionals and impressionable recent graduates to help balance the county’s caseload.


The county now appoints private attorneys to defend those who can’t afford to hire their own. The yet-to-launch office, implemented under recent standards and a $5.6 million cash infusion from the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission, is designed to streamline that representation for impoverished defendants.


Those standards include: An added emphasis on immediate and effective legal assistance, including an enhanced ability to call for additional investigation and introduce expert witnesses at trial. Continuing legal education and training among staff attorneys employed by the office were also named among other top priorities for the county.


“The size is a little daunting,” Church noted. “I haven’t really worked in an organization that large.”


Like others on the panel, 54B District Court Judge Richard Ball said Church still interviewed “head and shoulders above” other candidates. Koenig, although ranking just below Church on a point-based voting system, simply didn’t have the trial experience needed to convince the interview panel to recommend her for the job.


Ball, and judges Hugh Clarke of 54A District Court and Joyce Draganchuk of Circuit Court said Koenig, although knowledgeable, had never practiced in their courtrooms. The panel’s hiring recommendation, unless later overturned by the full county commission, also put to bed some concerns that were previously raised regarding the ethical integrity of the hiring process.


Koenig stepped down as a commissioner in October to apply for the job, sidestepping a conflict with state law. Her name still appeared on the ballot in November and she was again elected to the board. She’s confident in Church’s leadership and said she intends to return to the county commission in January for another term.


“In the end, for me personally, I conclude that we should all do things that challenge us, that challenge the status quo in our own lives, especially if we believe we can contribute or be of service” Koenig added. “And even more so, if it scares the heck out of you — than you really ought to do it.”


Some raised ethical concerns about how appropriate it is for fellow commissioners to hire a recent colleague — especially one who was chairing the commission until she quit. The county’s ethics policy advises against the move but it’s a dilemma that commissioners won’t be forced to face should they finalize Church’s appointment.


Commissioner Deb Nolan also suggested Koenig could still be employed in a lower-level position at the office.


Aside from Church and Koenig, attorneys Derrick Etheridge and Cassandra Green were next in line for the job.


Mark Blumer, a former assistant Jackson County prosecutor and 55th District Court magistrate, and Lansing’s Chief Deputy Attorney Joe Abood also interviewed for the job but ultimately scored too low for consideration.


Commissioners Thomas Morgan and Robin Naeyaert were originally slated to join the interview panel alongside the judges, Crenshaw, Nolan and Commissioners Teri Banas, Randy Maiville, Randy Schafer and Derrell Slaughter. They missed the interviews but will still be able to vote on the final hire this month.


Church couldn’t be reached for additional comment after the interviews.


Visit lansingcitypulse.com for previous and continued coverage as the county’s hiring process continues.