Last Man Standing

In the 25 years that he's served as Hennepin County's first and only chief public defender, Bill Kennedy has earned a tough-as-nails reputation for the way he defends his clients, his staff, and himself. This year he's pitted against Hennepin County prose

          In 1989, Betty Jean Burns was in court on charges of attempted murder. She had confessed to stabbing her boyfriend, Sheldon Geshick. He'd accused her from his hospital bed. It seemed like an open-and-shut case.

          But after a week of arguments, Burns went free. The jury had heard testimony about how Geshick's brain injury prevented him from speaking rationally. Burns had told them she confessed after being alone in a room for hours with a sergeant who slammed his fist on the table and threw a chair. Two witnesses said they'd seen a man they knew stab Geshick. (An investigation would later conclude that they were right.)

          The case ended up making international headlines when the jury wrote a letter of collective outrage to county, police, and city authorities. But in every other way, it was perfectly run-of-the-mill. Like most criminal defendants in Hennepin County, Burns was too poor to hire a lawyer. What kept her out of prison was that her public defender, Renee Bergeron, had the experience, the time, and the resources to take her case to trial. The reason she could, Bergeron says, is best summarized in two words: Bill Kennedy.

          For 25 years, Kennedy--the only chief public defender Hennepin County has ever had--has pushed, fought, cajoled and pleaded for what he calls "the people's law firm." He's inspired fierce loyalty among his staff, and admiration from a lot of observers. Many consider his office one of the best in the country.

          But Kennedy has also made enemies. He can be abrasive, in-your-face, intimidating. He's been called a cog in the wheels, an ideologue, a troublemaker. Now he's up for reappointment and a fierce behind-the-scenes battle has erupted over whether he or assistant county attorney Bill McGee should get the job. As the deadline approaches--the state board is slated to vote on the appointment Thursday--the air in the courthouse has gotten thick with dark rumors. And it's becoming clear that the fight is over a lot more than a job.

          The right for poor people to have a lawyer when they're accused of crimes doesn't go as far back as you might think. Though the Constitution guarantees access to counsel, it wasn't until 1963, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on a case called Gideon vs. Wainwright, that the right was extended to state courts, where most crimes are charged.

          Thirty-three years later, public defense in a lot of places doesn't look like what the Supreme Court may have envisioned. The system is full of stories of lawyers meeting their clients for the first time in the courtroom minutes before their case comes up. Of plea bargains by the bushel to keep cases moving along. Of defenders who burn out and drop out as soon as they've got some experience.

          In 1989, the state of Minnesota commissioned the Spangenberg Group, a Massachusetts consulting firm, to study the health of public defense here. It found that defenders were "devoting minimal time to their cases"--less, in fact, than those in any other state or district the firm had ever studied. They worked "substantially above capacity with insufficient time to devote to their clients. Workload [was] too high in every district.... And things [were] getting worse."

          And it wasn't, the report noted, skyrocketing crime that had created this situation. Changes in the economy meant that more defendants were found indigent--some 80 percent statewide, and 95 percent in the urban districts. At the same time, politicians kept coming up with new laws. ("Crime," one Hennepin County defender grumbles, "is the one area where a liberal can be racist and not be called on it.") Practically every year for the past decade, the Legislature has increased penalties, created new felonies, made gross misdemeanors out of misdemeanors, and misdemeanors out of things that didn't use to be illegal at all. That means more cases and more complicated ones; even plea-bargaining gets harder as the stakes for minor offenses rise.

          So far, Hennepin County has fared better by comparison than most public-defender offices in the state. But the pressure is on. Since 1989, when it became part of a statewide system, the caseload has gone up 80 percent while funding increased only 10 percent. The county board has kicked in to keep the office from what Kennedy has said would be certain collapse; but that appropriation, now standing at around $4 million for fiscal 1997, may not continue much longer.

          The problem, politically speaking, is that unlike most people in similar situations, Kennedy hasn't accepted what's been dished out to him. Rather than adjusting his operations to fit tougher laws and tighter budgets, he's challenged the laws and demanded more money. And that's not even to mention his habit of lambasting the system that employs him, and the people in it, whenever he considers that "justice isn't safe in their hands." As much as a lawyer and an administrator, Kennedy has been a rabble-rouser and an advocate far beyond the confines of his position. To understand why--and how he's managed to avoid getting kicked out on his ear--you have to understand a little bit about the Kennedys of north Minneapolis.

          "It's probably fair to say that I was born a rebel," Kennedy says by way of introduction. It's not what you'd expect to hear from a guy who sits there in a black suit and gold watch, hands folded in front of him, looking like a cross between an aging general and a storytelling grandfather. Bushy eyebrows and deep creases frame his eyes, giving his face an owl-like appearance. But after a while, a touch of rogue breaks through the polished appearance--especially when talk turns to authority figures. His voice turns gravelly. You get a sense that you'd rather not be on his bad side.

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