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Representing: A Busy Public Defender Stands Up for Her Clients

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Mary Kay Lanthier - CALEB KENNA
  • Caleb Kenna
  • Mary Kay Lanthier

Shortly after 8 a.m., public defender Mary Kay Lanthier loaded legal folders into a cardboard box in her Rutland office and prepared to walk up State Street to court.

She eyed the bulging box and sighed. Lanthier had 19 clients to represent in pretrial conferences at Rutland County District Court that Wednesday, September 14.

"I generally pride myself on not having to use a cart," she said with a wry smile. "I'm going to have to use a cart today."

The 45-year-old lawyer is accustomed to a heavy workload. But it's become more burdensome as the state struggles to find lawyers to work as public defenders. The Rutland office is supposed to have four full-time attorneys, but one slot had been vacant for months. This increased Lanthier's caseload to as many as 40 clients a day — all of them poor and counting on her to defend them against charges such as retail theft, DUI, heroin possession and even homicide.

"It's been difficult to hire," she said wearily of a job that falls to her boss, Vermont Defender General Matt Valerio, who also oversees 35 staff attorneys and more than 100 contracted public defenders throughout the state. As managing attorney of the Rutland office, Lanthier explained, "This is not how it normally runs."

Vacancies are a chronic problem across Vermont's public defender system. Young lawyers with student loan debts of $100,000 or more don't see much appeal in the $50,000 starting pay, according to Lanthier. And few seem as interested as their counterparts a generation ago did in representing indigent criminal defendants.

After more than 15 years as a public defender, Lanthier earns $95,000. It's a good wage, especially in Vermont, noted Lanthier, who grew up in a family of modest means in Castleton. Her dad worked at a slate quarry, and her mom was a small-town postmistress. (Lanthier now lives in Orwell with her husband, a retired schoolteacher, and their two teenage kids.)

Still, no one would describe a public defender's work as glamorous. Lanthier's office — in a drab building with stained carpet — offers no glass conference rooms or stunning lake views.

As she pulled on her gray suit coat, smoothed her matching pleated skirt and pushed her cart out the door, she explained why she takes satisfaction in her work.

"There's no better job," she said. "You just get to meet so many people at so many different stages of their lives and really stand between them and the power of the government."

And there's another thing.

"The bad guys aren't always bad," she said. "You shouldn't be defined by the worst mistake or worst thing you did."

A belief in redemption guided Lanthier down the street to the stately courthouse on Merchants Row, where she started her day in earnest. Various prosecutors, clerks and defendants called out hellos to "Mary Kay." To the guards manning the metal detectors near the door, she issued her trademark greeting: "Are we having fun yet?"

Her black pumps clattering, Lanthier walked across the polished floors to the elevator and rode to the third floor. The doors opened onto a crowded waiting area, where more than two dozen defendants had gathered to meet with their lawyers and for hearings in front of Judge Cortland T. Corsones.

The smell of cigarette smoke clung to the crowd, and many of those waiting in jeans and shorts clutched coffee cups and tapped text messages into their phones. They sat on benches and leaned against the walls, sharing their worries about how many hours they would be stuck in the courthouse, missing work, before catching buses back to Fair Haven and Brandon. A baby snoozed in a stroller while its mother half bragged that her 6-year-old was throwing chairs and biting kids at school.

Lanthier's clients mobbed her as she unlocked a small office at the end of the hallway and set down her things. Gary Russell Comes, an unemployed delivery truck driver facing charges of violating a protective order in the wake of prior convictions, was first.

"Life still OK?" Lanthier asked him.

Comes launched into a discussion about his recent release from prison and his new probation officer — a good guy, Comes said: "He makes you feel like you're not jumping through a hoop this big," he said, gesturing with his hands far apart.

After some chitchat about housing options and counseling, Lanthier moved on to the plea deal she was trying to negotiate. "Now, can I give you the bad news?" she asked in a sympathetic voice. "So, the state made an offer, which I think is a silly offer ... What they are looking for, essentially, is 13 months to 25 months to serve."

Comes, a big man with a beard, threw his shoulders back in shock and exclaimed, "What? Oh, my God!"

"Don't panic," Lanthier responded. She explained that because of a prior conviction, the new charge would be a felony. She couldn't guarantee how the trial would go, she told him, but agreed that the plea offer wasn't good.

The judge, Lanthier continued, was going to want to know that day: plea agreement or trial?

Comes shifted heavily in his chair and said he'd rather risk a trial than accept more than a year in prison. So they agreed to set a trial date.

If anyone could help him, Comes told a reporter, it was Lanthier: "I feel like she will give me the fairest shake I could have. She does a great job for the overwhelming amount of cases she has."

Ten minutes after he arrived, Comes left the room and another defendant took his place — the second in a long line, as it turned out. Most allowed Seven Days to sit in on their meetings, provided they weren't identified.

One was an elderly man wearing work boots, jeans and a benevolent expression. He faced charges of lewd and lascivious behavior with a minor. Lanthier greeted him kindly.

The man was on the verge of homelessness, bouncing from one relative's digs to another. They spoke briefly about his case, and he asked Lanthier to help keep him out of prison. He'd spent so much time there, he said, and he did not want to go back.

Lanthier said she'd do everything she could.

Next came a young woman charged with a repeat DUI. Following her was another young woman, facing retail theft and drug possession charges, who announced that she was managing her opioid addiction with the help of "street bupe" — illicit buprenorphine, an opiate-treatment drug.

All of Lanthier's clients are poor — they have to be to meet the income test to qualify for a public defender — and many have struggled with mental illness, addiction and lack of education.

Lanthier offered advice on each case and doled out information about agencies that might help with housing, sobriety and transportation.

She shuttled periodically into the courtroom for brief hearings before the mild-mannered, bespectacled Judge Corsones, mostly to schedule court appearances. She also walked down the hallway to a conference room where a dozen prosecuting attorneys and public defenders gathered to negotiate plea deals.

In the conference room, Rosemary Kennedy, the Rutland County state's attorney, explained that about 95 percent of cases settle without trial. She and other lawyers milled around the table talking about time to serve, furloughs, priors and what different judges might accept.

"This is where it kind of happens," Kennedy said. It's during these sessions that the lawyers decide "what the case is worth and how it should resolve, with hopefully the best results for both sides," Kennedy said.

Kennedy didn't want to be a public defender herself but admires those who do. "They are crucial," she said. "A lot of folks, especially in this community, wouldn't have the means to have an attorney. They are absolutely necessary to protect constitutional rights."

During the negotiating session, Lanthier stepped to one corner of the room and asked Seven Days not to follow, so she could speak privately with an assistant state's attorney.

Lanthier then headed back to her clients. She wouldn't tell a reporter what deals she did or didn't get.

A court officer buttonholed Lanthier to tell her that the deputies who had transported several of her incarcerated clients to the holding area in the courthouse basement were on a tight schedule. Lanthier needed to meet with her clients right away so they could get back to prisons around the state.

So she took an elevator to the bowels of the building and walked down a cinderblock hallway to a dismal room. A young woman in a bright blue prison shirt shuffled into an adjacent small area, visible through a glass divider. Her hands and feet were shackled, and the chains rattled. She had been in jail for three months awaiting trial on charges including aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

Despite the young woman's circumstances, Lanthier displayed optimism. She looked at her client through the glass, smiled and announced: "You look great. How you doing?"

Lanthier apologized that it had taken three months to schedule the meeting with her client, during which the woman had sat in jail for lack of bail.

"First of all, I'm sorry,'' Lanthier said. "You have every right to be more than just a little annoyed with us. You have a right to be pissed off."

The young woman responded that jail had helped her sober up and see things more clearly. She was getting a divorce and wanted to make things right in her life.

Lanthier asked about her mental health: Were things better? Yes, the woman said, except for bouts of insomnia.

They talked about witnesses in her case and discussed selecting a jury.

In the back of her mind, Lanthier might also have been thinking about another client — an anorexic woman who died in 2009, two days into a 30-day prison sentence for negligent driving. Lanthier said the untimely death of Ashley Ellis was one of the lowest points in her career.

Looking through the glass, the public defender told the woman before her: "You're sitting in jail. That keeps me up at night."

Editor's note: Days after Molly Walsh reported this story, Lanthier negotiated a better plea agreement for Comes. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and received a 12-month suspended sentence with no jail time.


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