Two attorneys are vying for the position of chief public defender in the Orange and Chatham judicial district. The position was left vacant after the former chief public defender, Susan Seahorn, retired in late 2020.
The two attorneys in the running are Woodrena Baker-Harrell and Kellie Mannette.
A chief public defender runs and maintains the public defender's office. They create policies and work on issues such as the disparate impact of court fees, pretrial reform and racial equity, Caitlin Fenhagen, criminal justice resource director for Orange County, said.
“The chief public defender has a higher duty, and that is to make sure that at every decision-making stage in the criminal justice system that the interests and needs of indigent clients that they represent are being considered,” Fenhagen said.
An advisory vote was held among lawyers in the district on who they’d prefer for the position. Baker-Harrell received 85 votes, while Mannette received 67 votes.
But the chief public defender is not an elected position. Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Allen Baddour will ultimately make the decision, and he is not required to follow the vote.
Baker-Harrell has been serving as the interim chief public defender since Dec. 1, 2020. She said her main focus, should she get the position, would be to continue operating with precautions due to the pandemic.
“Because of COVID, I think primarily my main focus is still to offer legal services but also make sure that we protect our clients and also protect other attorneys and staff members in the office,” she said.
Currently, clients aren’t being brought to court unless their case will be resolved. The district has also made tablets available at sites in each county for clients who don’t have internet access, Baker-Harrell said.
Another one of Baker-Harrell’s priorities would be making the office “client-focused.” For example, she would push for using funds to have an in-house interpreter for clients who don’t speak English, she said.
“When I say I believe in the Constitution, I want to continue to fight to make that Constitution make our legal system work fairly for everyone regardless of their skin color, their gender, sexual orientation, gender orientation, all of that,” Baker-Harrell said.
Mannette’s priorities would focus on supporting the attorneys in the office and addressing the issue of racial equity. One way Mannette would approach this would be requiring potential jurors to watch a video on implicit bias.
“Racial equity in the criminal justice system is by far, I think, the thing that needs the most focus,” she said.
As for why Mannette wants the position, she addressed the importance of working within the community.
“I want to see us at the forefront of this work,” she said. “I want to see us using what we’ve learned and what social science has put out and what we’ve seen to create a better community."
Fenhagen said the position should be filled by the beginning of March.
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