An Interview with Andre’ De Gruy
NAPD: Tell us about your career as a public defender?
ANDRE: In law school I got an internship with the Mississippi Capital Defense Resource Center. When it ended they hired me to stay around for the summer. I kept hanging around doing odd jobs and after graduation they hired me as staff attorney. After 4 or 5 years I became the director of that program just in time for the federal defunding. I then moved to one of the few fulltime defender offices in Mississippi where I handled the range of felony cases but mostly homicide cases. After 5 or 6 years of learning how to try cases by trying cases our legislature decided to create the first state funded public defense office and the governor tapped me to open the Office of Capital Defense Counsel. Eventually the State Defender was formed by consolidating the capital office and a non-capital appeal office and training program. I continued to run the capital trial division and plan to keep doing so.
NAPD: Tell us about starting a nonprofit office to handle capital cases?
ANDRE: I had no idea what I was doing. Friends told me it was set up to fail and if it didn’t fail it would soon be defunded. I thought my experience closing down the Resource Center made me the perfect person for the job ahead. I got a lot of unexpected support from our governor. I knew he was a strong death penalty supporter but learned he was also a strong supporter of fairness. His staff under his direction did everything possible to help me set up the office, including loaning me their IT staff, and learn the basics of state government administration. I was able to attract a couple of lawyers out of private practice with death penalty experience and some old friends from the Resource Center who were ready to give it one more try. Budget cuts came immediately but unlike our post-conviction office we were not overwhelmed with cases. Because I had a close relationship with many of the local defenders from working with the Defender Association for years I was able to figure out which cases were most serious (we have no death notice requirement) and focus on those.
NAPD: What led you to move from capital trial work into leadership?
ANDRE: Somebody has to lead. I’ve done that throughout my career. This change is really the first time I will be running a program and not also handling a caseload. I decided to do it because Leslie Lee, the Appeals Director who took on the job as our first public defender, was retiring. I felt Leslie had done a good job the last five years moving us in the direction of a statewide system I wanted to keep that going. I knew I would be able to hire a trial lawyer to take my place so I didn’t give the decision much thought. After the governor made his choice and the reality of not having clients sunk in I felt a little sick. I may not miss walking into a courtroom but I will miss going into the jail to see a client.
NAPD: Tell us about the Mississippi public defense system?
ANDRE: “System” is a bit of an exaggeration. We have a State Defender which consists of a death penalty trial division that is involved in most indigent death cases in the state; an appeals division that handles almost all of the felony appeals and is authorized to handle Youth Court appeals; and a training division that provides training opportunities for any and all defender in the state – death penalty, felony, misdemeanor and Youth Court. Each of our 82 counties is responsible for indigent defense systems in their area. Only 4 have fulltime offices. They have some statutory guidance but the vast majority of systems don’t comply.
NAPD: What are your top priorities as Mississippi Public Defender?
ANDRE: We have been included on state task forces responsible for significant corrections and criminal justice reforms in the past few years and have begun working to educate stakeholders on the vital role defense services plays in making this new system work. Using an evidence-based, data driven approach we plan on making the case for a unified defender system in Mississippi.
NAPD: Reform of indigent defense in Mississippi has had several starts and stops. Can you describe how you hope to continue to make progress?
ANDRE: Leadership across branches of government and across functions in the criminal justice system see things differently today than they did in the early 90’s when I got involved in this struggle. Working with prosecutors and law enforcement as well as judges and legislators we intend to put a plan forward that works for Mississippi.
NAPD: How would you describe your leadership philosophy?
ANDRE: I’m not sure I have a leadership philosophy. I try to treat everyone with dignity and never ask someone to do something I wouldn’t do or try to do. I do my best to listen and offer help when it’s needed. I’ve found people respond to that. I’ve had to learn to clearly articulate the mission.
NAPD: What is your organization’s greatest strength?
ANDRE: We have great people who want to be here.
NAPD: What are your organization’s biggest barriers?
ANDRE: We live in the poorest state in the union. It’s taken us 15 years (if you don’t count the 15 it took just to get Capital Defense) to get to where we are. Taken this to the next level, felony representation meeting objective standards with reasonable compensation, we are going to have to move from county only funding to some state support.
NAPD: What changes do you believe are likely to occur with the delivery of public defense services in Mississippi?
ANDRE: Getting generally accepted standards so objective assessments can be made will move us to the realization that the State has to play a bigger role.
NAPD: Are there problems with caseloads in Mississippi?
ANDRE: I think there are clearly places that have huge caseload problems but until we get standards in place, demonstrating the problems is impossible. We have bigger problems in my opinion. In many places across Mississippi the caseload is “controlled” by systemic structures that leave people without counsel for long periods of time. The litigation in Scott County is just the tip of the iceberg. We have people in some of our larger counties sitting in jail for months with a lawyer.
NAPD: What problems with predatory practices (jailing for failing to pay fines and fees) do you have in Mississippi?
ANDRE: It’s pervasive, every court every level. In 2014 we passed major reforms to reduce our over incarceration. One piece of the package was to allow “earned discharge credits” for folks on probation and parole. The intent is to control the supervision population so resources can be focused on those most in need of supervision. We have prosecutors and county clerks trying to prohibit the credits for people who owe fines, fees and assessments because they want DOC serving as their collection agency. It appears to be worse on the local level with misdemeanor cases, and we have lots of those. Thankfully we have some public interest groups that have begun to litigate and change is coming. We’ve had three municipalities, including our largest city Jackson; agree to consent decrees that we hope will stop these type practices.
NAPD: How do you maintain relations with the client community?
ANDRE: We don’t have a specific program, maybe I need to work on that.
NAPD: How do you ensure that professional development occurs?
ANDRE: We have a great training division. Beau Rudder is a very innovative trainer. He’s a former line defender in our model public defender office so he brought credibility to the position. He also brought energy and vision. We’ve partnered with Gideon’s Promise, Beau got us involved with NAPD when he was president of our association and he reaches out to local defenders to offer hands on technical assistance. We are seeking a legislative mandate that training occur but because of the quality of the programs we are offering it’s not my biggest concern.
NAPD: How do you communicate with the criminal justice system in your jurisdiction?
ANDRE: We’re a small state. Everyone knows everyone. When I was appointed the Chief Justice invited me, the director of our appeals division, the AG and head of his Criminal Division over to visit with the court. We sat around with six of the justices for almost an hour talking about things we could agree on. Going through the reforms of the past several years has led to an expectation that the public defender will be invited to the table and heard. It’s still hard to get a second on some of my motions but they hear the motion now.
NAPD: In 4 years, how do you want people to describe your organization?
ANDRE" The best new statewide indigent defense system in the country.
NAPD: How do you maintain work/life balance?
ANDRE: First prayer. My Faith got me into this work and has sustained me, particularly through death penalty work in the 90’s. When my wife of twenty years and I started dating I was a bankrupt, divorced, death penalty lawyer with joint custody of two kids under five. Beth made it clear that I needed to work on my balance. We have three more kids and she’s still around so I think I’ve figured it out.
NAPD: What else do you want your fellow defenders to know about you and your organization?
ANDRE: I think we’ve covered it, thanks for your interest.