Systems for Providing Indigent Defense: An Introduction


Criminal defense attorneys often project a “lone ranger” image, both to the public and to themselves. This image, fostered by literary and more recently by television models, presents the attorney as the sole defender of, and advocate for, the often lowly and powerless accused facing the governmental machine of prosecution. A natural implication of this image is that the fate of the accused hinges on the skill and commitment of the individual defense attorneys. While such skill and commitment are by no means irrelevant to the quality of representation the accused receives, the system which provides defense attorneys to the indigent accused may have as great or greater effect than the attorneys themselves. A few examples will illustrate the point.

In 1981 Robert Corenevsky was arrested in California and charged with the first degree murder, with “special circumstances,” of a Manhattan Beach jeweler, an offense which exposed him to the penalty of death. Six feet, six inches tall, 280 pounds, nicknamed “King Kong,” and a reputed “hit man,” Corenevsky hardly seemed a “victim” in any sense. Yet when he declared indigency and requested that the state provide counsel, he became a victim of the indigent defense system.

Three years later Corenevsky was still in jail in Imperial County, awaiting trial. In the interim he had been represented by at least seven attorneys, including a public defender who had resigned to work in the prosecutor’s office, a court-appointed attorney who had quit when his fee was not paid, and an attorney fresh out of law school. His representation by the public defender office eventually required the intervention of the state’s supreme court.

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Panel I: Defund Means Defund Andrea Ritchie (she/her) is a Black lesbian immigrant whose writing, litigation, and advocacy has focused on policing of women and LGBT people of color for the past two decades. She is currently a researcher with