by, Kylleen Thomas

What would you do if you found yourself in prison for life without the possibility of parole and you were innocent?

My name is Kylleen Thomas and that is where I found myself 28 years ago. I was in prison with nowhere to turn and no one to help. I was lost and had no idea what to do. Many prisoners are in the same boat. I did not have a public defender, but many who are incarcerated did. After years and years of litigation and appeals my case was finally resolved, but only after I spent nearly 12 years locked up for a crime I did not commit.

For many, because of economic reasons, a public defense is the only choice they have. However, what if the over worked, underpaid public defender doesn’t do his or her job? People like me are left to fend for themselves in horrific circumstances. I am supporting the call for a Defender General. That is, someone who is appointed to an independent position of authority to stand before the powers that be and advocate for the individual who is neither powerful nor popular to help resolve issues stemming from a poor or mishandled defense, or like in my case, no defense at all.

How many exonerees have we had in the past 10 years? According to The National Registry of Exonerations, since 1989 we have had 2796 exonerees. That equates to more than 24,915 human years lost. Just in the past five years we have had 812 exonerees. These are all human beings that have lost years and years of their lives because they had nowhere to turn. There is currently no one to oversee the public defense system.

The Biden administration has a chance to better the lives of millions of Americans by creating the office of the Defender General and reforming American public defense so what happened to me has a lesser chance of happening to others. Public defense plays a huge role in American life. Half of Americans have seen a family member incarcerated, and three in four incarcerated Americans rely on public defense. The right to a defense is a federal mandate, yet the federal government has never funded, overseen, nor worked to improve public defense on any significant scale, leaving state and local governments to cobble together funding and provisions. The fallout has been predictable and tragic.

The one person who worked tirelessly on my case and never let me down and never turned her back was my attorney, Andrea Lyon. Andrea is a champion for the underserved, underprivileged and those left behind in the system. Today she is spearheading an alliance for a new Defender General. Andrea’s belief is that unless the Defender General’s office is created at the same level as the Attorney General and the Solicitor General, the country will continue the apartheid that is our justice system, and people like me will continue to be unjustly treated. Andrea Lyon originally proposed establishing the office of defender general in The Indiana Lawyer in 2016 writing as the Dean of Valparaiso Law School. To date there has been no broad based, concerted effort to systematically change the US justice system to encompass the interests of those people subject to the criminal laws of the states and federal government. In the United States the interests of every party subject to the legal process is represented at the policy and litigation level except criminal defendants. While criminal defendants can receive free representation by public defenders, their funding and sheer case volume prevail against appropriate attention. For more information, please contact Andrea Lyon at andrea@andrealyon.com or visit the Defender General website at www.DefenderGeneral.com.