9 Investigates Orange-Osceola Public Defender's Office

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Only 9 Investigates learned the Florida Supreme Court recently issued a damning indictment of the conditions at a South Florida public defender's office, citing heavy caseloads that left clients virtually unrepresented.

Channel 9's Lori Brown then discovered the Orange-Osceola Public Defender's Office is in an even deeper funding hole, and she asked lawmakers if the Supreme Court's decision will force an overhaul of the public defender system, which is designed to represent poor people charged with crimes and provides a key check on the justice system.

The high court's ruling comes three years after Malenne Joseph spent months in the Orange County Jail for vandalizing an Orlando home in a destructive revenge crime.

The problem is the Kissimmee mother was the victim of mistaken identity and wrongfully convicted of the felony.

"I was crying every day. I said, 'I want to go home to see my kids,'" Joseph said recently as she recalled her ordeal.

Now Joseph blames the public defender's office for failing to do its job and clear her name before she did time. She's suing that office and others involved in the case that led to a jury mistakenly finding her guilty.

A judge ultimately had to overturn her conviction and release Joseph from jail after three months.

Joseph's current attorney, Mark NeJame, insists if the Orange-Osceola Public Defender's office was better funded, injustices like Joseph's could be avoided -- and so could the costly lawsuits that follow wrongful convictions.

"We see them often. That's the tragedy of this situation," NeJame said.

The Florida Supreme Court recently found low funding in Miami caused public defenders there to leave some people unrepresented. But Brown discovered the funding is even lower here in Central Florida's largest judicial circuit.

The Ninth Circuit is Florida's third largest in population, but it is third from the bottom in terms of funding per case. While the office covering Orange and Osceola receives $161 per case, Miami's office collects $275 per case.

"Residents of Miami shouldn't have a higher dollar per citizen for public safety than Orange and Osceola," said Orange-Osceola Public Defender Bob Wesley.

Wesley tries to avoid saddling his attorneys with excessive caseloads, but it's not without sacrifice.

"The real dance with the devil we're making is: We're doing it with less-experienced people," Wesley told Brown.

And many of those young attorneys are leaving the office. 9 Investigates found 357 attorneys have left Wesley's office in a five-year period.

"A McDonald's restaurant would look at us and think our turnover is way too high," Wesley noted.

Wesley was not able to talk about Joseph's case because she is suing his office.

But those who bring lawsuits in wrongful conviction cases insist they will continue until offices like Wesley's are better funded.

"It's going to start costing taxpayers more money if the legislature doesn't give adequate funding," NeJame said.

As for Joseph, she's just relieved she's back home with her family and no longer in jail for a crime she did not commit.

"Every day I had a dream," Joseph said, "God, please help me get out."

State Sen. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, told Brown that he believes the Supreme Court decision will force lawmakers to overhaul the funding formula that cheats Orange and Osceola counties. It's a fight he's been working on for several years now.