Dec. 12 2018 01:44 PM

Ingham County hires chief public defender

WEDNESDAY, DEC. 12 — Assistant Ingham County Prosecutor Russel Church will shift gears and start thinking like a defense attorney as he transitions into his new role guiding the county’s public defender’s office.


County commissioners — by unanimous vote — decided Tuesday to follow recent recommendations from an interview panel and appoint Church as Ingham County’s chief public defender. He’ll start at about $104,000 annually, and will undoubtedly need to vacate his position on the opposite side of the courtroom.


“It’s not unusual to switch responsibilities,” said County Prosecutor Carol Siemon. “He was a public defender in the past, so this is certainly something that he has already done and I think his experience will certainly be helpful in his new role.”


Church earlier this month outperformed five other applicants identified as finalists for the job during an extensive interview process involving county commissioners and judges from local courtrooms. His decades of trial experience ultimately set him apart from the competition, said Commissioner Bryan Crenshaw.


“The edge for me was his experience running a public defender’s office in Tennessee,” Crenshaw added.


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 interviewed alongside Commissioner-elect Carol Koenig, who resigned from the post earlier this year in order to dodge a conflict with state law and apply for the gig. Church’s hire means Koenig will return to the county board in January, less than two months after her colleagues appointed Nathan Triplett as a replacement.


“I think he’ll do a fine job,” Koenig added. “He has a lot of experience and that’s really why they picked him.”


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.”


The county now appoints private attorneys to defend those who can’t afford to hire their own. The yet-to-launch defender’s office, implemented under recent standards and a $5.6 million cash infusion from the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission, will 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 previously. “I haven’t really worked in an organization that large.”


Like others on the interview panel, 54B District Court Judge Richard Ball said Church 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.


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.


Church hasn’t returned multiple phone calls following the interviews earlier this month.


Visit lansingcitypulse.com for continued coverage on the county’s fledgling public defender office.