Public defender has busy, rewarding year

Public defender has busy, rewarding year by David Lias The Clay County Commission's hopes of more efficiently providing attorney services for court cases here are showing signs of coming true, according to the man hired a year ago to serve as the county's public defender.

"Since it was a new position, I guess none of us really knew what was going to happen so I thought I'd let you know where I'm at," Phillip O. Peterson, of Beresford, told the commission at a recent meeting.

Peterson recently marked his one-year anniversary as public defender for the county. He was hired by commissioners in February 1999.

"I keep track of my court appointments, and I've just counted them up. I've had 50 in the last year," he said.

In the last 12 months, Peterson has served as defender in an arson case, a rape case and three aggravated assault trials.

"I also have a habeas corpus, which is a case in which an individual was convicted," Peterson said. "His case was appealed and the conviction was affirmed, however, the Supreme Court said we think something wrong happened, but we're not going to overturn it on appeal, we recommend you do a habeas corpus, so I'm doing the habeas corpus for him."

Some of Peterson's other court experiences as public defender in the last year include three possession of marijuana cases, two drug possession trials, six DWIs and representing individuals charged with keeping a place for sale of controlled substances, a parole violation and felony failure to appear.

He admits that there have been some frustrating times. He told the commission of an individual who won't take medication that would help him be more mentally stable.

"It's frustrating from a legal standpoint, because what do you do with an individual like that? I found myself in the position that he wouldn't even consider entering any sort of a plea, yet he was sitting in jail," Peterson said. "So, against his will, I made a motion that I thought he was mentally unfit to assist me in his defense, and the judge agreed with that.

"I'm representing him, and I ended up taking a position that he was opposed to. That kind of puts me cross-wise with him," he added. "You try to do the best for your client even if he doesn't agree with it."

Peterson said the fact that he lives in Beresford, outside of Clay County, helps keep the public defender's office operating smoothly.

"Because I don't have many clients in Vermillion, I don't have any conflicts," he said. "If I had a private practice in Vermillion, and represented several hundred people, each time I was appointed, and the victim was a client of mine, the county would have to pay for a different court appointed attorney."

"This was uncharted territory up until you started a year ago. How do you feel it is working out?" Commission Chairman Jerry Sommervold asked.

"It's worked out well for me," Peterson replied.

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