Why George Zimmerman Didn’t Have a Public Defender

Matthew Yglesias speculates about what would have happened if George Zimmerman had been represented by a public defender. As somebody who knows quite a few public defenders (and — full disclosure — is married to one), I was surprised to see Yglesias describe most public defenders as having “little emotional … investment in winning the case.” It’s been my general observation that many public defenders are extremely passionate, whether about helping their clients, defeating overreaching prosecutors, or both. It’s not a bearable job if you don’t have an emotional investment in it.

That assertion aside, Yglesias’s broader point is to worry that those who are represented by public defenders may have worse outcomes than those with represented counsel because public defenders lack adequate incentives and resources. But some of the research on this is actually quite interesting. Morris Hoffman, Paul Rubin, and Joanna Shepherd wrote a paper arguing that while public defenders’ clients do tend to fare worse than those with private counsel, that may be caused by a selection effect (p.8):

There is a surprisingly large segment of defendants who tend to use the public defender when the charges against them are not serious, but manage to retain private counsel when they are faced with serious charges. We call these defendants “marginally indigent.” … If you are a marginally-indigent defendant, and you know not only that you are guilty but also that there is a very high probability that you will be convicted (for example, your crime was captured on videotape), it is not unreasonable to imagine that you will be less inclined to scrape together the money for private counsel than if, for example, you know you are wrongly accused. Thus, public defenders’ lower effectiveness may simply reflect the fact that, on average, they represent defendants with worse cases.

Also interestingly, George Zimmerman’s case may be an example of marginal indigence. My understanding is that George Zimmerman did not have a lot of money and probably would have qualified for a state-provided lawyer. But he and his allies raised a bunch of money for private counsel because he was faced with such serious charges and thought he had a plausible defense. This is exactly what Hoffman, Rubin and Shepherd find and predict.