Local News

Wake public defender loses three-fourths of investigative staff

Posted May 3, 2016 6:58 p.m. EDT

— Three of the four investigators working for the Wake County Public Defender's Office left the office last week, which some observers say puts a strain on an already backlogged justice system to represent poor defendants.

Arthur Stahmer retired, while Elizabeth Moore and Sharon Dixon resigned. Stahmer had been an investigator with the office for more than a decade, while Moore had been there almost 10 years and Dixon had been there more than five years.

Public Defender Charles Caldwell cited personnel laws in declining to comment on why all three left at once. The state Administrative Office of the Courts and the State Bureau of Investigation both said they weren't looking into the circumstances surrounding their departures.

Caldwell's office handled almost 15,500 Wake County criminal cases in the fiscal year that ended last June, and the investigators help the 31 attorneys on staff manage that caseload.

"An investigator quite often makes the difference in whether a person is going to get a fair trial or not, particularly someone who has been falsely accused. It's critical," longtime Raleigh defense attorney Joe Cheshire said.

The loss of three-quarters of the investigative staff is "basically going to slow down or stop their ability to do the kind of investigation on those cases that need to be done for adequate justice to be done," veteran defense attorney Karl Knudsen said.

"The resources that are historically provided to public defender's offices and to the representation of indigent people in this state is woefully inadequate," Knudsen said.

Caldwell said he is working to hire new investigators.

"You make do," he said. "We hope to have all these filled in a few weeks. It shouldn't put us too far behind."

"Chuck is a really good public defender, and he's got a great office. I'm sure he'll fix the problem as fast as he can, but it is a distinct problem," Cheshire said.