Applicants need lots of heart

Pete Silva tells prospective applicants they gotta have heart, lots and lots of heart, when applying for a position in the Tulsa County Public Defenders office.
That requirement is among the highest on the list of qualities for the lawyer applicant and an attribute that is vital to meet the needs of a long client list, a group that does not generate much public esteem.
Silva is the chief public defender for Tulsa County, a position matched only in Oklahoma County.
Indigent defendants in the remaining 75 counties are served by the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System.
“Finding a public defender is a difficult matter” Silva said. “We can’t make you care for a fellow man — we can’t make you honest — we can’t make you ethical.”
Silva, a Bartlesville native, was wounded while serving with the Marines in Vietnam.
It is people with “character, strength, dedication — courage to go against the system” that he brings into the public defender’s office.
“If you have these things then you might make a public defender,” Silva said. “I want people ‘who have a calling,’ not looking for a job.’’
“The case load is overwhelming,” he added. “It’s a meat grinder” for the staff of 38 attorneys, four full-time investigators, 12 secretaries and paralegals and 22 interns.
Tulsa County had 6,362 felony cases filed in 2008 and the public defender’s office not only handles a large percentage of those, but also is involved in juvenile court, drug court, domestic relations, civil and criminal mental health cases.
“We don’t get to pick them, they don’t get to pick us,” Silva said of the office’s client list. ‘‘No matter how bad the facts are in the case “they’re ours.”
In all, Silva said his office was legal counsel in about 58 percent of the Tulsa County felonies, 80 to 85 percent of the murder cases and 90 to 95 percent those where the death penalty was sought.
Most of the staff may be rotated among the varied court settings, but not so for the juvenile court.
Silva likes to maintain a steady legal helm in that area with those who prefer a career in the juvenile court.
Some indigent defendants are represented by court-appointed attorneys. Many are involved in cases with a number of people charged in the same crime. The appointments are made to avoid any legal conflict of interest between defendants.
Most of Silva’s annual budget of $3.15 million comes from state court funds — fines, court costs, fees — after first being approved by the presiding judge of Tulsa County and, ultimately, by the chief justice of the Oklahoma Supreme Court.
Most of that is for payroll excluding benefits with a small amount for expenses such as seminars and mileage.
Salaries are fundamentally on par with the district attorney.
The chief public defender’s salary is pegged at 98 percent of that paid a district court judge, said Silva, once a photographer for The Tulsa Tribune.
New attorneys just out of law school begin at $42,500 in the Tulsa office, said Silva, who was a private practice for a number of years primarily handling civil cases, before deciding that his real calling was as a public defender.
The office provides a wealth of experience for many.
Some law students may intern at the Tulsa County Public Defender’s office for three years.
They will be exposed during that time to all facets of the office’s operations and all levels of court activity — meeting with clients, conferences with judges, plea bargaining sessions, hearings and trials, he said.
“Law school cannot teach you to be a trial lawyer,” said Silva, who was an intern with the public defender’s office in 1974, during the office’s fledgling years. “We can turn you into a good trial lawyer.”
In addition the office received some logistical support from Tulsa County, primarily office space, but also telephones, paper and other items.
Court appointed attorney payments are not included in Silva’s budget.
In Tulsa County the lead attorney in a capital case — death penalty — will received $20,000 with an additional $5,000 for the second chair, he said. Judges may allow some expenses.
In death penalty cases when attorneys need to be appointed, judges draw from a pool created in Tulsa County of those who meet standards that closely parallel federal standards.
The job of the public defender “is to see that the client gets a fair trial,” said Silva, who either attended or graduated from the University of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State University and the University of Tulsa.
Even if the defendant admits guilt to the public defender, which limits the defense, that does not mean the evidence and testimony can not be questioned as to admissibility, accuracy and truthfulness, he said. Whether in trial or a plea bargain, the goal is to limit the defendant’s exposure to punishment.
Silva doesn’t keep a scorecard, but said the public defender has probably lost more cases than it has won.
The fundamental difference between public and private defense attorneys is those in private practice can pick their cases.
Silva said his most memorable case was in the 1980s.
It was a high profile case.
He defended Bob Doss, a Tulsa police officer, one of three men charged with the 1982 crossbow slaying of Michele Rae Powers.
Jimmie D. Stohler, also a Tulsa police officer, was found guilty and is serving a life sentence at the Joseph Harp Correctional Center in Lexington.
He is scheduled to have a parole hearing next January.
The third defendant was found not guilty.
Silva’s client — Doss — was acquitted.

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