Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Public Defender Says Career Chose Him; His Journey Has Shaped His Work

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Public Defender Says Career Chose Him; His Journey Has Shaped His Work

Article excerpt

Byline: Teresa Stepzinski, Times-Union staff writer

BRUNSWICK -- A timber wolf gazes warily, half-hidden behind a tree in a photograph that hangs prominently on the wall of Jeff Lacy's modest office.

The vigilance of the silent forest sentinel speaks to Lacy.

"I love the symbolism. He's out there watching, on guard against any possible threat. That wolf is kind of like me. I feel like I'm always watching and looking out for the people who we represent," said Lacy, who is Glynn County's public defender.

Lacy, 41, became public defender last year, replacing his former boss, Tim Barton, who was appointed county chief magistrate.

As Georgia struggles to overhaul its indigent criminal defense system, Lacy is on the front line of the daily battle to ensure that those who cannot afford legal representation are not short-changed.

The Georgia State University law school graduate has traveled a winding cross-country road to get here -- from the windswept Nebraska prairie to the rugged mountains of Wyoming to the concrete canyons of Atlanta.

It has been a journey of self-discovery, Lacy said. A series of challenges -- some mastered and others not -- have shaped his legal career and life as a husband and father of three children.

"I never chose to be a public defender. It chose me. And I fought against it for a long time, but now I've realized and accepted it. This is my calling. God put me here to do this," Lacy said.

A Marietta native, Lacy worked as assistant public defender in Glynn County from 1995 to 1998. He previously served as a public defender in Fulton and Douglas counties in Georgia as well as Madison, Neb., where he began his legal career while helping his rancher father-in-law run their family store.

"I've never wanted to do something easy," he said. "I always wanted to do something intellectually stimulating. I like challenges."

Lacy has written legal textbooks for the Georgia Indigent Defense Council that serve as guides for lawyers statewide. Before returning to Glynn County last year, he was in private practice and specialized in handling criminal appellate cases.

He divides his time among the courtroom, administrative duties and meeting with jailed clients. The public defender's office has a $595,300 annual budget. He supervises four assistant public defenders, two investigators and two administrative support workers.

The office handled 2,139 cases last year, ranging from petty theft to murder. The caseload has been steadily growing over the past seven years. And the workload is expected to increase with reform of the state's indigent defense system.

"The toughest thing about this job is I can't be a lawyer 100 percent of my time," Lacy said. "I have to be a manager, too. I'm learning how to do that, but I feel guilty not being at the courthouse with my lawyers. …

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