Public Defenders / The Lawyers Who Are the Poor's Last Line of Defense

On the face of it, public defender Gil Krezbaum was in for a tough case. The woman he had been appointed to represent in the Hadera Magistrate's Court yesterday was accused of spilling acid on her husband's face. The couple's four children corroborated the father's complaint.

Krezbaum recommended that his client confess and accept a plea bargain, but she refused. While cross-examining the defendant's husband, however, Krezbaum was able to find some contradictions that served to make the complainant's story seem less credible.

Court-appointed lawyers like Krezbaum are the only hope of fair representation for people like this woman. Public defenders represent a large number of those who find themselves in court. Most of Krezbaum's clients are charged with criminal or vehicular offenses.

"In retrospect, I find myself asking how it is possible that Israel [formerly] lacked a Public Defender's Office," the 45-year-old Krezbaum said after ten years of experience as a public defender. He has been with the Public Defender's Office since just after it was established, 11 years ago.

"Over the past years, the service that the Public Defender's Office has been able to give has constantly and significantly improved," he added. "Many people couldn't properly defend themselves, and this resulted in grave injustice."

According to Krezbaum, the improved service is due to his office's strict hiring standards coupled with training aimed at improving defense attorneys' abilities. A senior attorney oversees the cases that his junior colleagues handle, Krezbaum said. And to complement their own services, public defenders help their clients to obtain expert opinions in any relevant field.

In that same Hadera court yesterday, a judge presided over the arraignment of two young men - one of them a minor - suspected of willful destruction of property and attempted car theft. Krezbaum was appointed to represent the adult, but not the minor.

"When several suspects are implicated in a single incident or crime, they are each given their own lawyer," Krezbaum explained. The reason is that the suspects might have conflicting interests, as one's sentence might be reduced at the expense of another's. A ringleader, for example, will receive a heavier sentence if his followers convince the judge that they merely followed his example.

Krezbaum had hoped the court would release the minor, thereby making it easier for him to argue for his client's release as well. But both suspects were remanded.

Krezbaum's colleague, 36-year-old Hana Bulos, joined the Public Defender's Office two years after becoming a lawyer. "I became a public defender after two years in law," he said. "I handled the fourth case the Public Defender's Office ever received - a murder case. I got the defendant acquitted. A novice private-sector lawyer can only dream of receiving a murder case. The Public Defender's Office gives you that chance."

Bulos and Krezbaum are part of a team of 85 in-house attorneys currently employed by the Public Defender's Office. "Promotion depends on how well we perform in each case," Bulos explained the personal incentive for getting suspects off the hook.