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Public defender honored for indigent defense work

POSTED: November 30, 2011 4:00 a.m.
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To some people work is truly work, but for Northeastern Judicial Circuit Public Defender Brad Morris his work is his passion.

"If you do something you like, it really isn't work," Morris said.

For more than 30 years, Morris has served in the field of law in some aspect. Even from the beginning, he seemed destined for a career as a defense lawyer.

Morris' dedication to providing the best possible defense to defendants of the Northeastern Judicial Circuit was recognized recently when he was honored with the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers' 2011 Indigent Defense Award.

The award is presented to one attorney in Georgia who demonstrates indigent defense work.

Morris, however, refuses to take all the credit for receiving the award. He believes his office as a whole deserves to be recognized.

"I thought that we have created a relatively good public defender's office, (and) to me indigent defense is integral to democracy," Morris said.

The public defender office for Dawson and Hall counties opened in 2004. Morris is the only person to lead it.

Before being named public defender he had his own private practice in Gainesville that began in 1980.

But Morris was originally a strong opponent of the public defender system. He felt that shifting millions of dollars of funding to a government-appointed agency would only hurt criminal defense by introducing more lobbying into the process.

Support by judges and the State Bar of Georgia, though, created a worthy system in Dawson and Hall counties, Morris said.

Nothing irks Morris more than seeing a person wrongly convicted. He works tirelessly to prevent such circumstances and demands the same from his staff.

"We're the ones that keep the Constitution of living a viable thing," he said. "It's always the state that takes rights, not individuals."

Peoples' lives are literally on the line for public defenders, he said, meaning defense attorneys can't let up or they risk their clients possibly going to jail for crimes they didn't commit.

"It's a lot of responsibility you have doing what we do and it's interesting and I feel like it's the right thing to do," Morris said.

Being a prosecutor was never in the mix for Morris when he decided he wanted to go to law school. His desire was to help people, not potentially destroy their lives forever.

After serving as an officer in the Army, he spent a few years backpacking all over the world and even climbed part of Mount Everest.

During those years, Morris pondered what kind of career he wanted to pursue.

"I noticed how, while there was rancor toward the United States back then by a lot of countries, most people really believed in the principles and ideals of America as they saw those ideals," he said.

That's when Morris decided to attend Emory University. He later received his law degree from the University of Houston School of Law.

His goal was to help provide the same defense to those who can't afford it as those who can.

"I felt like the people who need it are poor people and for the first time in my life, I wanted poor people to have as good or better than people who have resources," Morris said.

But being able to maintain fair defense has become more and more difficult in recent years because of budget cuts to the public defender program.

"Economics and fairness go hand-in-hand," Morris said. "The state pays tons of money to prosecute people, tons of money to deprive them of liberty and has little money or interest in trying to protect people who are presumed to be innocent," he added.

But Morris believes public defenders can save money for the state by helping a defendant avoid a jail sentence they may not deserve.

The cost to house a single inmate in a state prison is $18,000 annually, Morris said.

"It's terrible the state of our criminal justice system as far as the unfairness to individuals, in terms of coercing them to plea because when you go to trial the choices are so stark," Morris said.

Only about 2 percent of cases ever make it to trial, which Morris said is often unfair to the defendant. And the sentences handed down by judges have gotten more severe, as well, Morris said.

"They're giving these 13-year-olds 25 years in jail for messing with their neighbors and things, which is a death sentence for a 13-year-old," he said.

Although Morris has helped numerous defendants prove their innocence, he doesn't look back on any particular case because there's always going to be another one.

"I always feel like when you win a case you've just missed a bullet and there's going to be one popping up again, so I never really would be really excited about it," he said.

 

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