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Harjo Leads Indigent Defense

By Lynda Van Kuren, posted Apr 5, 2024
Jennifer Harjo, chief public defender for New Hanover and Pender counties, navigates challenges that have cropped up in recent years. (Photo by Madeline Gray)
Since Jennifer Harjo opened New Hanover County’s Public Defender’s Office in 2008, she has strived to ensure her clients receive their Constitutional rights for legal representation. 

With the advances in scientific and digital evidence, Harjo said she and her staff can better meet that goal.

Scientific and digital evidence “allows both the prosecution and defense to be more certain,” Harjo said. “It helps us secure an acquittal or conviction when the accused is guilty.”

But today’s preponderance of the evidence is a double-edged sword, Harjo said, as it adds to the workload of all lawyers, especially that of her staff; this comes at a time when she is already short-handed.

Harjo’s interest in the law – and defending the underdog – dates from her childhood, when her father and others from the Muscogee, or Creek, tribe in Tulsa won a lawsuit that changed how the tribe’s chief was elected. 

After earning her law degree, Harjo practiced in Boston. She joined a private practice when she and her husband moved to Wilmington. 

When Harjo was asked to become chief of the public defender’s office, however, she was ready to take on the challenge. She and her staff provide legal services to individuals facing possible jail time but can’t afford an attorney. Harjo’s clients are accused of all types of crimes, including DUIs, capital murder, rape, theft, neglect and abuse, and contempt of court.

Harjo has worked diligently to ensure her clients receive the best legal defense possible and that their punishment fits the crime if they are guilty. The job is more complicated than one would expect.

Many of those her office represents “are overcharged. There is an exaggeration of evidence or mishandling of evidence,” she said.

That’s where today’s scientific and digital evidence can help. New technologies such as fingerprinting DNA, touch DNA, body cameras, security cameras and personal cameras all provide crucial evidence, according to Harjo. 

In some cases, digital evidence may mitigate the crime the defendant is accused of; in others, it can result in freedom instead of sentencing. For example, Harjo recalls a case in which a video taken by one of the accused as a selfie showed that the defendant was not guilty of rape.

“We were able to get that evidence, and it showed that things did not happen as the victims said,” Harjo said. “Without that evidence, my client was in big trouble and likely would have ended up in prison.”

But the plethora of evidence means that lawyers spend hours upon hours reviewing it. 

Reviews of digital evidence can entail listening to two- and three-hour interviews, complete with dead time or listening to the accused’s phone conversations to see if anything said is pertinent to the case.

If the client doesn’t speak English well, Harjo’s office may need an interpreter to listen to recordings of phone conversations. The client might have said something in their native language that reveals pertinent new information, Harjo said. And, of course, Harjo’s staff must compare all the witnesses’ statements with videos to determine their accuracy.

Even something as simple as a DWI is time- and labor-intensive, according to Harjo. 

A file containing just three papers may require numerous checks, such as laboratory analysis of blood taken from the client, documentation ensuring the analysis was done correctly, documentation that the blood was taken lawfully, and a review of video to ensure the car actually crossed the yellow line and didn’t come next to it.

“It’s a lot more work for lawyers, and especially for those in my office,” Harjo said. “The prosecution has said what happened, and they have some evidence that they feel is sufficient to sustain a conviction, whereas defense lawyers are obligated to look at every single piece of evidence and see if there is anything that’s important to the case.”

While the number of cases Harjo’s office handles has gone down, the time to handle each case has drastically increased, Harjo said. As a result, Harjo is short-staffed, and the staff she has is overworked.  

It’s a situation that isn’t easily remedied. While Harjo received hundreds of applications to fill defense attorney positions in the past, now a mere handful comes her way. 

Some reasons for the decline in applicants are inherent to the position: The work is challenging, the pay is low, opportunities for advancement are limited, and clients don’t always appreciate the work the defense attorneys undertake on their behalf.
Other reasons for the lack of interest, such as the desire to work remotely, are more recent. 

Harjo said many would rather work on a computer at home than come to an office and deal with the stress of being a trial attorney.

Also, Wilmington’s city size might not be a draw for young professionals who want to work in a larger metropolitan area, Harjo said. 

“If potential applicants don’t enjoy the beach, this is not where they want to be,” she said.

Finally, Harjo is determined to hire staff who meet her standards and are dedicated to the field. She would also like to include staff who represent the area’s demographics. 

“Hiring people is not just about their abilities,” Harjo said. “I also like to get the right personality for the office. I’d like to find some diversity, which can be hard to find as well.”
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