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'Most Overwhelmingly Difficult Period': A Franklin County Public Defender Hangs On

Rosie Chase stands in front of the Franklin County courthouse in St. Albans, holding a box of files
Erica Heilman
Rosie Chase is a public defender in the Franklin County public defenders office.

Since March of 2020, most court hearings in Vermont have been postponed in response to concerns about COVID. So how are judicial proceedings … proceeding?

Rosie Chase is a public defender in the Franklin County public defenders’ office.

Independent producer Erica Heilman met up with Chase on the steps of the courthouse on arraignment day, in downtown St. Albans.

Rosie Chase: “So we’re at the criminal courthouse in downtown St. Albans, on Lake Street. Today is a citation arraignment day, although the courthouse is closed to in-person hearings. So there are a few individuals who are cited to come to court today, meaning a law enforcement officer gave them a written order to come to court. And the courthouse is closed. So if I wasn’t here, they would come up to the courthouse and learn it was closed and have to figure out how to join a Webex hearing that’s happening inside the courtroom.”

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Me: “And the likelihood of understanding how to do that on short notice is ... what?”

Rosie: “It’s concerning to say the least.”

Rosie Chase is a public defender at the Franklin County public defenders’ office. She was standing outside on the courthouse steps with a beat up cardboard box of charging documents, public defender applications and some business cards, waiting to greet and redirect people who’d been cited to court, even though the court was closed. It was freezing.

A woman makes a phone call in the shadows in the vestibule of a brick public building
Credit Erica Heilman / VPR
Chase stands in the entrance of the Franklin County courthouse, making a call. Though it is not her job, she aims to divert clients, to help them get where they need to be when they inevitably discover the courthouse is closed.

On March 16, 2020, the Vermont Supreme Court declared a judicial emergency because of COVID. The pandemic has changed the way the courts operate, and has radically slowed an already slow criminal process in the state.

After standing around outside the courthouse with Rosie for about 30 minutes, we could stand outside no longer, and retired to the courthouse vestibule to wait, and talk.

Rosie: “You know, the judges assume that everybody’s been here a hundred times and knows the drill and talks quickly and asks them to fill out the public defender application. I see my job here is to help people understand the process and treat them humanely.”

Me: “And to redirect traffic, in a way, because this building we’re standing in is in fact closed. So people are being asked to come here, but it’s closed. You don’t have to be here, but you’re here because there’s a broken communication. Is that true?”

Rosie: “Yes.”

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Me: “If you had to characterize over the year … what have been some of the particular challenges because of the virus?”

Rosie: “I’ll try not to cry while I talk about this, but it’s been the most overwhelmingly difficult period of my practice as a criminal defense attorney. In a busy criminal courtroom anywhere in this state, defense attorneys, judges, state’s attorneys, we’re all overworked and overwhelmed when it’s not a global pandemic.

"I'll try not to cry while I talk about this, but it's been the most overwhelmingly difficult period of my practice as a criminal defense attorney." - Rosie Chase, public defender

“I look back to the pre-trial hearing we had before COVID, when I was nearly in tears the day of pre-trial because I had 55 clients standing in the halls looking at me, saying, 'What are we doing? How are we resolving my case? What’s happening today? When can I get out of here and go back to work?’

“Since COVID, we have continued to charge people with crimes, but that’s about all we’ve done. Depositions have been primarily on hold. The clerks are not scheduling cases for even status conferences, a check-in. All we’re doing is charging people with new crimes. One client in particular has been held for over a year on a domestic assault charge. He’s had a baby since he’s been in jail, with the alleged victim, and he’s been held without bail with no prospect for release until he can get a jury trial. I have every reason to believe he will succeed in the jury trial, and we will prove it didn’t occur, but we’re just waiting for that day.

“As a defense attorney, the weapon in my arsenal that I use the most effectively is the ability to take a case to trial. And without that weapon, I feel helpless. Jury trials are effective for plea bargaining, because it’s hard work to take a case to trial, and a lot of prosecutors will spare themselves that work by agreeing to a lesser charge or less jail time, last minute, as you’re leading up to the trial. So without the trial date looming, you’re not able to effectively plea bargain.”

A woman reads a paper and makes a phone call, wearing a mask in a doorway.
Credit Erica Heilman / VPR
Public defender Rosie Chase says the pandemic has been the most difficult time in her career, as she sees clients get caught up in a system that is slowed by COVID-19.

Me: “Why does this matter? You don’t have to be doing this.”

Rosie: “Because it’s the last group of people that anyone cares about. They don’t get treated like humans. A lot of defense attorneys say, and I agree, that you can’t judge somebody by the worst thing they’ve ever done in their lives. Humans are complicated. And a lot of the people we’re working with here have grown up in poverty with a whole host of issues. And it’s important to treat them like humans.

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“We want success for everyone who lives in our community, but certainly people committing crimes in our communities. We want them to beat their drug addictions. We want them to stop stealing from our shops. And we want them to be able to maintain a job and support their families so that we don’t continue down this path of supporting them in jail; warehousing them. And I just don’t think it’s OK to cite them to be in court and then close the court. So that’s why I’m here today.”

And at that, Rosie went back out into the cold to introduce herself to a new client.

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Erica Heilman produces a podcast called Rumble Strip. Her shows have aired on NPR’s Day to Day, Hearing Voices, SOUNDPRINT, KCRW’s UnFictional, BBC Podcast Radio Hour, CBC Podcast Playlist and on public radio affiliates across the country. Rumble Strip airs monthly on Vermont Public. She lives in East Calais, Vermont.
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