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Peter Kiley-Bergen Works with the Defense

Peter gains a new perspective on the work of the Public Advocates Office in Eastern Kentucky. 


I worked with the public defender in Appalachian Kentucky. In our justice system, everyone has a constitutional right to a legal defense. The courts appoint public defenders to represent indigent clients who cannot afford their own attorney.

I was very involved with the public defenders’ work. I went to jail on my own to interview clients about their cases and I relayed legal communication on our attorneys’ behalf. After these visits, I reported back to attorneys.

Back at the office, I wrote motions for submission to the courts. For example, if the prosecution made a vague case, we requested greater specificity in order to be able to properly defend our client. While writing, I researched legal precedent in order to construct a solid argument.

In preparation for our client’s day in court, I worked with our team to develop trial strategy and craft effective arguments. The development of our plans stretched beyond one idea of how to get from start to finish. We built solid plan B’s because trials can take unexpected turns, and it is important to be prepared.

In court, I saw many interesting proceedings. I especially appreciated the diversity of exposure that this internship afforded me, seeing many different courthouses and different judges was hugely broadening. Sometimes, I played a relatively active role: I reviewed plea agreement paperwork with clients. If the client had questions, I passed those on to the attorney.

Serving in a rural area affords collegiality. We went to lunch with the bailiffs, the prosecutors, and the judge. Some judges even invited discussions. I loved those legal talks with a sharp mind from the bench.

Observing the humanity of the accused and convicted was unexpected and remarkably poignant. Our office dealt with truly heinous and unspeakable crimes. In those tough cases, you feel really bad for the victim—something that should have never happened, happened…and that’s horrible. You feel sorry for the victim’s loved ones because someone they really care about has been harmed. You also feel sorry for the perpetrator’s loved ones. It’s extremely difficult for a parent when their child ends up on the wrong side of the law.

We think about the perpetrators of crimes differently. And that makes sense! Many convicted criminals are dangerous, and it is important to protect the public by incarcerating them. However, a lot of people who end up in prison should not spend the rest of their life there. Most criminals can be rehabilitated. I especially remember a profound moment from this summer during the sentencing in a murder trial.

It was a very bad case and the accused woman had been found guilty. She got emotional. She seemed to be confronting not only the consequences of her actions, but also herself and what she did. She seemed remorseful.

Remorse does not diminish her culpability. She committed a disgusting act and she needs to pay her debt to society. She’ll spend a very long time in prison. Based on what she did, she should be removed from society. However, per the court’s sentence she’ll not spend the rest of her life in jail and based on the judge’s decision, I believe she could be effectively reformed. Seeing that sort of thing makes you think about the complexity of human nature.

I also learned that for some members of American society, life truly is, as Thomas Hobbes put it “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” My supervisor told me about a stretch of time one summer when several Department of Public Advocacy clients died. People that based on their age, should be in the prime of their life.

A few experiences illustrated how messed up life can be for some of the people public defenders serve. One day, a man was arraigned on misdemeanor drug possession charges—if I remember correctly. The judge was reviewing the man’s criminal record and thinking out loud about the possible stipulations of a guilty plea.

The judge said, “Well, you did X in 2011.”

The man quickly interjected, “No, that was in 2003!”

To which the judge replied, “No, I’ve got the record in front of me and that happened in 2011.”

I sat there thinking, “Things are not looking good for the client when he can’t even accurately remember his own, in this case presumably lengthy, criminal history.”

The man then continued, “I’m sorry, it’s hard for me to remember…I got shot in the head.” And just like that, the tenor of the conversation changed.

The judge asked, “What happened?”

The man answered, “My brother stole a guy’s rooster.”

I thought, “What?

The man then said “The bullet is still in my brain.”

This guy had not only been shot, he stood there with a bullet in his head over poultry.

I was truly taken aback. I talked to my supervisor about this case, and he told me something similar he’d witnessed in court.

A guy came before the judge on charges of parole violation. Oftentimes, in this circumstance the parole violator is sentenced to time in jail—except there was something about this guy that precluded him from being sent to jail. The guy had tried to commit suicide by shooting himself in the head through the mouth—and he lived. However, he blew off a piece of his skull and as a result he was very fragile. It didn’t make sense to send him to a rough place like jail because he could die if he fell or got hit.

The judge expressed some disbelief, and the guy showed his head to the judge. He pulled back his hair and every time the guy’s heart beat his forehead moved. The judge quickly looked away and said “I’ve seen enough.”

To which the man replied “Oh, it’s alright, it cured my paranoid schizophrenia.” This guy literally lobotomized himself.

These stories are dramatic and exceptional, but they indicate places where our society could improve. There is work to be done in rural Appalachia. If the people around that rooster had been better educated, maybe that man would not have been shot. If the paranoid schizophrenic had had better access to healthcare, perhaps he wouldn’t have attempted to commit suicide.

Dealing with tough situations is not pleasant, but it was an important aspect of my Shepherd internship. The first step towards making progress is identifying places where society could improve. This past summer I saw many areas where America could do better. I also saw people in tough situations working hard to turn their lives around. I now think a lot about how to remedy the unfortunate situations I encountered last summer. Our society must take steps to diminish the likelihood of criminality and expand opportunities. The Shepherd Internship opened my eyes to problems. I look forward to continuing my education in order to increase my capacity to work towards solutions. I am not yet sure of what I want to do with my life, but I know that the Shepherd Internship played a critical role in my growth.


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