Memphis Bar Association Highlights 50th Anniversary of Gideon, Public Defense in Shelby County

Law Offices of the Shelby County Public Defender lobby
Law Offices of the Shelby County Public Defender

Next week will mark the 50th anniversary of the landmark decision that established the right to counsel for all Americans facing incarceration, regardless of their ability to pay.

In 1963, Memphian Abe Fortas was part of the legal team that successfully argued Gideon vs Wainwright before the U.S. Supreme Court.  That decision held that the 6th Amendment provided the right to appointed counsel in state felony cases. The Court added that counsel for indigent defendents is an essential element of a “fair trial” and argued that states are responsible for meeting this mandate through the Fourteenth Amendment.

This decision would eventually be extended to anyone facing deprivation of liberty.

This is the charge of the Law Offices of the Shelby County Public Defender and all systems like it across the country.  But 50 years after Gideon, has this promise of effective counsel for all been met?

Read our cover story in the most recent edition of the Memphis Bar Association magazine, Memphis Lawyer.  You can read this article and the full issue of Memphis Lawyer here.

Or you can read a PDF version of our article below. Try it in Fullscreen mode!

Digital Pull-Out from Memphis Lawyer magazine

Shelby County’s ‘Street Court’ Brings Legal Relief to Record Number


PHC volunteer Kristi Poindexter and homeless client, Orenzia Self

“I figured it’s Valentine’s Day, a day to share your love with other people.  So I thought, ‘Why not come?’ I met Mr. Orenzia, and it’s been so much fun!”

Before coming to Project Homeless Connect 3, volunteer Kristi Poindexter might not have imagined that one of her favorite Valentine’s days would be spent with a man who lives on the streets.  But as she walked Orenzia Self through this pop-up village of services at the Cook Convention Center, she learned much about his life… and something about herself.

“It’s amazing, because it could be anyone. We were talking about how we both went to college and that he had to take care of his mom, and that different situations in life can cause different downfalls,” said Poindexter.  “Sometimes, when you hit rock bottom, it’s kind of hard to get back on your own.  This is about learning to see yourself in other people. We’re a lot more alike than we think we are.”

Project Homeless Connect 3 was a one-day blitz of services for Memphis’ homeless population. Organized in modules throughout the Cook Convention Center, clients could visit the barber shop, get vision screening and free glasses, help with housing, driver licenses and veteran benefits.


Kick-Off at the Cook Convention Center

Back for its second year, the innovative “Street Court” provided legal relief to a record number of clients. Street Court is a collaborative effort led by the Law Offices of the Shelby County Public Defender and the Public Action Law Society (PALS,) a student-led organization at the University of Memphis School of Law.

More than 40 clients received relief from court fines and costs.  That’s double the number served at last year’s Street Court.  This number is in addition to the 55 people who did not qualify for court, but were able to receive other legal counsel. In total, nearly 100 people were given legal assistance at this year’s event.

“We were able to resolve more than twice as many criminal cases this year,” said Street Court organizer and Shelby County Public Defender, Josh Spickler.  “This represents twenty more people who can put criminal court debt and arrest histories behind them. These things are barriers to housing, benefits, and employment. Once removed, a person can more easily move from the streets and toward a more productive life.” 


Public Defender Josh Spickler representing a client before Judge Karen Massey

Street Court brought together public defenders and prosecutors, Judge Karen Massey, the Shelby County General Sessions Criminal Court Clerk’s office, attorneys from top Memphis law firms, members of the legal aid community, and PALS volunteers from the U of M School of Law.  


U of M law school students, private attorneys and members of the Memphis legal aid community interviewed potential clients and offered counsel on civil cases.

This is the third year Shelby County assistant public defender Amy Mayne has volunteered for Project Homeless Connect. 

“I think people don’t realize how many barriers there are out there,” said Mayne. “Many believe, ‘Well, if he would just get up off the street and get a job, it would be fine.’ The truth is, a lot of homeless people just don’t even know where to start. It can be really depressing, even debilitating, to owe all of these fines and costs that you feel you are never going to be able to pay. I think many people just don’t realize how many different areas the poor need help in, and how much work there is to get them through the process.” 


Shelby County public defenders, Judge Karen Massey, members of the General Sessions Criminal Court Clerk’s Office, private attorneys, and U of M law school students filed hundreds of motions in this one-day criminal court.  

The project has been so successful that the U of M Law School student organization, PALS, is adding a Street Court to its upcoming Alternative Spring Break (ABS).  The week-long program is the only law-focused alternative spring break in the country that recruits students from across the country.  It will take place March 11th – 15th and will also be a partnership with the Law Offices of the Shelby County Public Defender.

Chris Martin, PALS president and student organizer for Street Court, says this was a natural addition to ABS. “It gives students a chance to do criminal defense, working with clients who need it most.” 

Martin, recent recipient of the Tennessee Bar Assocation’s Volunteer Law School Student of the Year, says this kind of work is crucial to the development of the next generation of law students.

“I hope this leads to them seeing themselves as attorneys who have to give part of their time to clients who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford legal representation.” 

Project Homeless Connect is organized by the Community Alliance for the Homeless.  Read more about the work they do and about the recent drop in Memphis’ homeless population in this article from the Commerical Appeal. brings you stories of justice from Memphis… and beyond.

A blog by the Law Offices of the Shelby County Public Defender.

Top 10 Stories of Justice in 2012 from the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office


It’s been a big year for public defense in Shelby County. We’d like to share a few of those stories with you as we prepare to head into 2013.

Here are our picks for Top Stories of Justice in 2012 plucked from and beyond:

10. New Expungement Law in Tennessee.

In May, Governor Haslam signed a law that would expunge Tennessee criminal records for those who meet certain conditions.  Our office had high hopes that this new law would provide relief to already productive citizens who’ve been burdened with a conviction long after paying their debts. But the expungement came with a pricetag and conditions that significantly limited its application. To date, our offfice is aware of only 19 people in Shelby County who have actually benefited from the new law.

 9. Shelby County Public Defenders Earn Recognition. 

This year, our office received state and national attention for going above and beyond.  In April, Assistant Public Defender Bill Robilio was recognized by the Tennessee Lawyers Assistance Program (TLAP) for outstanding service to his peers.  Robilio regularly volunteers to help fellow lawyers struggling with personal and health issues.  In August, Assistant Public Defender Kamilah Turner became the first public defender in Tennessee to win the Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (TACDL) award for high quality trial advocacy.  Also in August, Dir. of the Defender’s Resource Network and JustCity co-editor, Josh Spickler, was invited to present at the Brennan Center Community-Oriented Public Defense Network conference in New York City. Shelby County was recognized for its innovative use of digital media and presentation formats to communicate with the public.

8.  National Leaders in Criminal Justice Reform Bring Training to Shelby County.  

This year, our office brought in national experts to help improve the quality of indigent defense in Shelby County.  In November, we welcomed the founder of the Southern Public Defender Training Center (SPDTC), Jonathan Rapping, a nationally recognized trainer in client-centered public defense. Our entire legal and non-legal staff participated in lecture and small group training.  In December, the American Bar Association (ABA) and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) provided our entire office with a grant-funded two-day training program in forensic science.  The program was designed to help our lawyers identify and challenge junk science in the courtroom.

7. Shelby County Receives National Recognition for Helping Mentally Ill Clients. 

Since developing the Jericho Project more than a decade ago,  Shelby County Public Defender Stephen C. Bush has become a national voice for the compassionate and effective defense of those with mental illness.  In October, Bush was interviewed for a national publication, offering guidelines for other lawyers addressing the needs of clients with mental illness.  In December, Bush was invited to present before a team from the National Association of Counties (NACo) to outline the innovative strategies behind the Jericho project.

6.  First ‘Street Court’ for Homeless in Memphis

This summer, our office coordinated the first ever Street Court for Project Homeless Connect – a one-day, one-stop effort to offer services to the city’s homeless population.  The Shelby County Public Defender’s Office collaborated with prosecutors, a judge, court clerks, and host of law student volunteers to assist homeless clients with criminal matters. The Street Court was such a success that it will be offered again at Project Homeless Connect in 2013 and will be implemented by University of Memphis Law School students for their 2013 alternative spring break.

5.  State of Public Defense in Shelby County Cover Story of the Memphis Flyer

In February, Memphis’ alternative weekly featured the work of the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office as its cover story.  The article detailed the dire resource situation our office faces operating in the poorest big city in America, but it also highlighted the opportunities that lay ahead as our office seeks to become a model and help lead the national indigent defense reform efforts underway.

4.  Man Facing Death Penalty Freed by Capital Defense Team

In July, Capital Defense Team lead atttorney Gerald Skahan and his team won acquital for a man charged with murder. The team argued that he acted in self defense. Forty-two year old Ealroad Davis would have joined 88 others on Tennessee’s death row, if convicted.  The Capital Defense Team was able to show that the death was the result of an argument that ended tragically. Davis was set free after spending nearly 3 years in detention awaiting trail.

3.  Two of Nation’s Top Law School Grads Join Shelby County Public Defender’s Office

This summer, Memphis welcomed its first class from the Public Defender Corps program.  Two new law schools grads, one from Yale and one from the University of Alabama, joined the Shelby County Public Defender’s office as part of a three-year program. This marks the first time Shelby County was selected to participate in the program.

2.  Shelby County and Davidson County Public Defenders Join Forces to Correct a Multimillion Dollar Funding Error

In April, Davidson County Public Defender Dawn Deaner and Shelby County Public Defender Stephen C. Bush testified before the Tennessee General Assembly to request a correction in state funding for Davidson and Shelby County. The miscalculation in state funding has recurred for more than 20 years.  State lawmakers did not approve the fix in the 2012 session, but efforts are underway to address the issue in 2013.

1.  Department of Justice Investigation of the Shelby County Juvenile Court

In April, the Department of Justice released a landmark report citing the the Shelby County Juvenile Court for due process and equal protection violations — insufficient access to counsel and the courts and disproportionate treatment of black children.  In December, the DOJ and Juvenile Court reached an agreement.  In the agreement, the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office has been given the responsiblity of creating a juvenile defense unit to represent the children of our community.  No doubt, this will also be a top story in 2013.

It’s been a big year for justice in Shelby County and 2013 looks to be even bigger.

Check back with us at for more stories of justice from Memphis and beyond.  

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