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Public defenders there for wrongfully accused teen

In his Dec. 15 guest column, “Who’s there for Gisell?,” retired Albuquerque Police Department Sgt. Dan Klein addresses the tragic case of Gisell Estrada, the 17-year-old girl who was misidentified by APD, arrested and jailed for six days for a crime she did not commit or know anything about. The headline of the column asks a critical question: “Who’s there for Gisell?”

And I can tell you this: Her public defenders at the state Law Offices of the Public Defender were there for her every step of the way.

Gisell was targeted by police after an employee at her school misidentified a Facebook photo provided by the detective investigating the shooting death of Calvin Kelly. Rather than talk to Gisell, her teachers or her family, police and prosecutors simply got an arrest warrant for her and got a judge to seal it. Media reports and the Journal’s Dec. 10 editorial, “Teen’s 6 days in jail show social media no substitute for police work,” rightly challenge the way the investigation was conducted. And Klein rightly rails against a lack of checks and balances for the innocent when he asks who was there for Gisell.

LOPD public defenders Todd Farkas and Craig Acorn, and LOPD investigator Ed Medina did their absolute best for Gisell, as they do for all their clients. They rang the alarm bells from Day 1 that police had made a grave mistake. They counseled her terrified family. And they worked tirelessly, eating quick lunches at their desks or on the run, coming in early and staying late. It’s not that they had extra time on their hands; they regularly juggle dozens of high-profile and time-consuming murder cases, several of which have impending trials. They aren’t overflowing with resources, especially when compared to the police and prosecutors. They – like nearly every other public defender on a daily basis – worked themselves ragged because, well, because who else was going to be there for Gisell?

When prosecutors finally relented, Gisell had spent six days in juvenile jail, which is, in every real sense, a jail – especially for a shy girl who would eat lunch with her teachers at school and who had never been in any legal trouble. How much longer would she have stayed in juvenile jail but for the strong advocacy of her public defender team?

The Journal’s Dec. 10 editorial claims that the system ultimately worked because Gisell had access to a “free” attorney. This statement minimizes the depth of work involved for the public defender team and seems to assume that a free – and adequately resourced – attorney will always be there for people in need. That’s a dangerous assumption in this time of critically underfunded public defenders carrying crushing caseloads. And it should be a scary assumption, too, since, as Klein concludes, what happened to Gisell could happen again.

And the next time it does, it could be you or your child.

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