Oregon State Bar Bulletin — DECEMBER 2009

Law & Life

Home for the Holidays:
A New Lawyer’s Story
By Eric J. Deitrick

Debbie lived on the waterfront. Well, she didn’t really live anywhere, but the Waterfront Park in Portland was the closest thing Debbie had to a home. Debbie was in her mid-50s. When she was happy, she would color with her crayons. Other times, she would just yell at folks. Unfortunately for Debbie, she had been trespassed from the waterfront park numerous times and told not to return.

The police knew Debbie. They knew she liked coloring. And even though she was banned from returning to the waterfront, the officers who patrolled the park would typically look the other way, so long as Debbie wasn’t acting out. If she was disturbing others (or having a “fit” as the officers would note in their report), she was arrested and taken to jail. A report would be written. Debbie’s coloring book would be seized as evidence. A criminal case would be filed. And I would be appointed to serve as her attorney.

Criminal Trespass in the Second Degree is not the most serious crime in Oregon’s Criminal Code. Each time Debbie was arrested, she was released from custody on her own recognizance. She was told by the judge to make her court appearances and to not enter the waterfront.

Yet Debbie would persistently defy these judicial orders — and be found the next day, or the next week. Sometimes she was even found re-entering the park on the same day she was arrested. By the time the court become frustrated enough with Debbie to detain her in custody pending her trial, I had been appointed to represent her on about 30 separate criminal cases of trespass.

Debbie’s case is my favorite case, and it is the reason I do what I do as a public defender. Her case is the best example I have experienced in which every component of the criminal justice system worked together to get a just result and help people. Clearly, Debbie was mentally ill, so a judge had her transported to the Oregon State Hospital for treatment. Within months, she was becoming more stabile. She began to recognize me when we talked on the phone.

With help from Multnomah County’s Mental Health Services unit, we were able to send an employee of Central City Concern to the state hospital to interview Debbie and find her housing once she was released from custody.

One of the biggest problems with transitioning defendants from the state hospital to county jail is that they tend to decompensate in the county jail. Presiding Judge Koch allowed us to bend the rules and schedule a special hearing in Circuit Court, so that Debbie could be transported directly from the state hospital to the hearing, without being warehoused in the county jail awaiting a hearing. Debbie was transported directly from the state hospital to Judge Wittmayer’s courtroom, where she entered a guilty plea to one count of Criminal Trespass II. Every other case was dismissed as part of the plea agreement.

Debbie was released to Central City Concern, which had found her a shelter. Better yet, we had located her family — her two sons — who lived in Idaho. Apparently, Debbie had stopped taking her medication about a year before the arrests and had wandered into Portland. Her family was coming to take her back home. Together, with the help of judges and court employees, sheriff employees, the district attorney’s office, mental heath professionals and social workers, we were able to resolve a fairly minor criminal case in a manner that ensured there would be no recidivism In other words, Debbie was not just pushed through the system. She was helped.

I have been working as a public defender since my third year of law school in 2004. Under Oregon’s law student appearance rule, I was able to get trial experience quite early. I worked at the Rose City Defense Consortium until February 2006. Then, I moved to Multnomah Defenders, Inc., which is where I work now and where I plan to stay.

I am lucky to have a job where I get to meet people like Debbie, although I have never come close to sharing their misfortunes. Yet there are hardships in balancing law student debt with the salary a nonprofit job like mine allots.

I grew up in the Appalachian heartland of central Pennsylvania, where the only industries were farming and manufacturing. (Our current president got into trouble during the campaign for saying that the region’s citizens clung to guns and religion out of bitterness.) The towns are small. People hunt and fish and watch high school wrestling. After high school, most people marry, get a job or join the military. Few people move away.

Around the time I began law school in 2002 my dad lost his manufacturing job and was receiving unemployment benefits. Because the economy was shifting in the industrial Midwest, my dad was in a position where he had use student loans himself to get retrained for a skill that could support him and my mother. He studied radiography and became certified as a radiography technician.

My mother has always worked as an administrative assistant at a hospital. Before me, none of my parents or grandparents had gone to college. It just wasn’t done. All of my male cousins joined the armed services, except me. I went off to the big state university, took a train to Portland, and became a lawyer on the west coast.

I get guff from my family for not coming home for Christmas. I had not been home to visit my family in Pennsylvania for Christmas since 2001. They can’t believe that their lawyer/son/nephew/cousin/grandson cannot afford to fly home for Christmas. They have no idea that my salary combined with debt load makes spending on anything but necessities quite difficult. Last year, however, I made sure I would make it home for Christmas. I bought a flight last June with my kicker check money — and then the great Christmas storm of 2008 happened, and my flight was cancelled. So much for planning.

I know my career choice precludes me from buying a home or a car or anything of any real value, but I never expected having to sacrifice such basic things as a trip home for the holidays. And although not getting home for the holidays is nothing compared to the hardships my clients like Debbie face, it is representative of the simple niceties one gives up to pursue a career as a public defender and pay the bills on time.


Eric J. Deitrick, a 2005 admittee to the Oregon State Bar, is a public defender in Portland. This essay is based on his application to the OSB Loan Repayment and Assistance Program for financial assistance to pay off law-school debt.

© 2009 Eric J. Deitrick

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