About Brad Morris
Hometown and residency in North Georgia area: Born in Birmingham; permanent residence in Maysville, where my father’s family has lived since the 1700s and where I moved in 1978. Since a motorcycle accident in 2009, been staying mostly in Gainesville.
Education: Bachelor’s degree from Emory University, 1968; law degree from University of Houston, 1976
Occupation: Lawyer representing persons accused of criminal offenses. Since 2004, circuit public defender of the Northeastern Judicial Circuit (Hall and Dawson counties), which is an office of 14 lawyers and 14 support staff
Most interesting job: Defending individuals entrapped in the web of the criminal justice system
Family: Wife, Renee, teacher at Gainesville Middle School; daughter, Texys, bachelor’s degree from the University of Virginia, law degree from the University of Georgia, currently in an L.L.M. Fellowship program at Georgetown University Law School; son, Bradford, bachelor’s degree from Duke University and currently preparing to go to medical school; son, William, a senior at Gainesville High School
Each Monday, “5 Questions” asks someone in our community to answer five questions about their lives. If you know someone who would be a good subject for this feature, send their name and contact information to email@example.com.
As public defender for the Northeastern Judicial Circuit, H. Bradford “Brad” Morris Jr. represents those people accused of crimes who can’t afford to pay for legal representation. It is a job he takes extremely seriously, saying what he does protects one of the most precious freedoms Americans enjoy.
Today, The Times asks Morris five questions about how criminal defense became one of his life’s passions.
1. What are the challenges your office has faced in a time of shrinking budgets?
Like all county programs, our budget has been decreased, and we have had to adjust to that. Our county employees had been experiencing decreased income due to four years of monthly furloughs, but that has now been decreased to three per year.
The counties and courts have always tried to be supportive of our office, and our employees are grateful to be able to have a job they love at a time so many of our fellow citizens are suffering financially.
Our people are committed professionals who perform their work as necessary to provide adequate representation to our clients and, consequently, our clients have not been adversely affected.
Interestingly, our providing indigent citizens with the representation to protect the rights set out for all of us in the Constitution is also the financially sensible thing, as sentences are now extremely harsh due to mandatory sentencing provisions with limited parole provisions, and the costs of incarceration are extremely high. When our services save a year of jail time, the state saves approximately $18,000, while the cost of our representation to the county is approximately $450 per case.
2. What led you to seek a public defender’s role in the legal system?
After I was discharged from the Army in the Far East in 1971, I traveled around the world for two years throughout Asia making my way back home overland through India, Afghanistan, Central Asia to Europe and then to Georgia.
I was continually reminded by people I met around the world about the beauty of American freedoms and the rights of the individuals against the government.
Going to law school, I knew the area that interested me was criminal law to defend the citizens accused against the potentially overwhelming power and resources of the state. While in law school, I was awakened by the harshness of a young man getting a life sentence for stealing a package of chicken from a grocery store.
I practiced criminal law for 28 years, taking both retained and appointed cases before this system started in 2004.
When the public defender system was instituted, I probably was a natural consideration for the position, since I had done similar work for years with the goal of assuring that poor people got as good or better professional services than those who had more positive financial circumstances. Those rights and protections from government overreaching that we are born with need to be articulated equally for all people, because protecting one person protects us all.
3. What is the most difficult case you’ve faced?
The most difficult cases to defend are child molestation cases. Because of the nature of the offense, it seems to take far less credible evidence for a conviction than other allegations, and the burden of proof and presumption of innocence can be compromised to a standard being “could he/she have done it,” rather than “proof beyond a reasonable doubt of guilt.”
The most tragic aspect is especially true with the ever-expanding number of young kids who, as young as 13 years of age, are charged as adults, facing a minimum of 25 years to life with no parole. This sentence is mandatory; a judge has no discretion to reduce it. Such a sentence with the tortuous prospects attendant to it effectively ends that child’s life.
This legal harshness is of significant concern in light of the evolving conduct and social mores of our youth influenced greatly by Facebook, Twitter, the Internet, etc. Frequently, accepted conduct among youths’ peers can have horrendous legal consequences of which the children have no understanding. Even wrongly-accused young people suffer tremendously just from the repercussions of the accusation.
4. Why is it important to our justice system that people accused of crimes have access to representation, even when their crimes seem so clear?
It is important to our democracy that juries pick up their responsibility and require the government to meet its burden of proof, which, in criminal prosecutions, is always “guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.”
At times this can be a difficult job for jurors. The standard for most of our life decisions is far lower than the standard jurors are supposed to apply. The object of legal investigations is the search for the truth. As truth often varies from perception, our system has derived rules and standards to determine one’s guilt.
Many times the most extensive investigation with seemingly undoubted evidence and conclusions turns out to be wrong — as seen in our war with Iraq under the premise of the Iraqis having weapons of mass destruction, when in fact they had none.
This has also been shown in the criminal arena where approximately 300 people who were found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt were, after serving an average of 13 years, shown to be not guilty through DNA evidence.
Interestingly, 25 of those persons had initially made false confessions. Likely, even greater numbers of innocent people have been erroneously convicted of crimes, but there was no fluid to submit to DNA testing.
The judges in the Northeastern Circuit are concerned about justice in their courts. The current sentencing mandates often allow only very harsh custodial sentences.
In many cases, judges are given little and sometimes no discretion to sentence based upon the appropriate consequences for the individual person and circumstances. For this reason, it is imperative for the lawyer to be knowledgeable about the facts and the law of the cases so that the client is exposed only to the necessary liability, and to seek viable sentencing options in those cases where the judge does have discretion.
A lawyer’s job is not to be judgmental, but to challenge the state’s evidence and hope that jurors will do their duty — as often, when crimes seem so clear, they in fact are not. One of the most difficult tasks is to plead a person guilty whom you believe to be innocent, but the stark choices and fears push that disposition.
It is important to note that the role of a defense attorney is not to prevent the guilty from being punished. A defendant is entitled to require the state to prove its case; that safeguards all of our basic civil rights. In fact, most cases end up in pleas of guilty to some charge, and the defense lawyer’s duty then is to enlighten the court as to all the circumstances that would result in a fair and just sentence.
I served in the military, as have most of my ancestors when called upon by our country. However, although our military protects the corpus of America, the living essence of our country is composed of the rights of the individual, especially when the state seeks to deprive individuals of their life and liberty. It is an honor to be a part of protecting the vital organs of all of our freedoms. Popular causes rarely need protection.
5. What advice would you give young attorneys seeking to become public defenders?
My interviewing process for our young lawyers is rigorous. I expect a great deal of talent, work ethic and tenacity to be able to wear the mantle of protecting our citizens’ most fundamental rights.
Annually, each of the lawyers in our office carries on his and her shoulders the responsibility of up to several thousand years of penitentiary time for individuals they represent. That is why I try to demand a strong focus on this work.
I tell interviewees that this job is like turnip greens: Either you love them or hate them. It will be the best or worst job they will ever have. I want them to appreciate the privilege to serve these individuals as their lawyer.