Montgomery County’s top public defenders, chief Dean Beer and deputy chief Keisha Hudson, were fired Wednesday and replaced.
John Corcoran, a county spokesperson, confirmed Wednesday that Carol Sweeney and Greg Nester are taking the places of Beer and Hudson as co-chief deputy public defenders. Corcoran gave no additional details on the departures, citing a county policy of not commenting on personnel matters.
Officials said the decision to fire Beer and Hudson was made by the county’s Board of Commissioners, which oversees all department heads in the county.
Sweeney, currently case-management chief at the office, and Nester, chief of the Mental Health Unit, did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Beer and Hudson also did not respond to messages Wednesday.
A county spokesperson would not comment on whether their termination was connected to the defenders’ recent filing of an amicus brief lambasting the county’s practices for setting bail in hearings without lawyers or consideration of ability to pay.
“We witness firsthand the multitude of individual and community harms caused by dysfunctional bail practices that result in unnecessary and prolonged pretrial detention,” read the brief, which was filed Feb. 3 and abruptly withdrawn eight days later.
Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, issued a statement demanding answers.
“These terminations should alarm Montgomery County residents and all Pennsylvanians who care about reforming our criminal legal system,” Shuford said. “The ACLU of Pennsylvania calls on the Montgomery County Commissioners to give a full accounting as to how and why this decision was made and whether or not the filing of the amicus brief was a factor in the firing of Mr. Beer and Ms. Hudson.”
Local defense lawyers were also taken aback by the personnel change.
Keir Bradford-Grey, Philadelphia’s chief public defender, called the termination of Beer and Hudson “a stunning move that will have a negative, chilling effect on public defenders.”
And Jules Epstein, a Temple University law professor who has conducted training at the Montgomery County defenders office, described the terminations as a great loss.
“Historically, there was a sense that many county public defender offices were not independent and were actually political patronage jobs and don’t-rock-the-boat jobs,” Epstein said. “Many offices have changed, and in the last several years Montgomery County seemed to be part of the change model, where they hired people who were not political but who really were focused on providing high-quality indigent defense."
Pennsylvania is one of only two states in the country that provide no funding for, or oversight of, county defenders.
David Carroll, an expert on the right to counsel at the nonprofit Sixth Amendment Center, said the Supreme Court has repeatedly emphasized the importance of an independent public defender, and noted that the American Bar Association describes independence as the first of 10 core principles of public defense.
“The problem is that none of the other 10 principles are achievable without the first,” he said.
Rosalie Joy, vice president of the National Legal Aid and Defender Association and former chief defender of Atlanta, said that incidents of “public-defender interference” continue to arise around the country.
“It sounds as though in Montgomery County we are looking at once again a situation where public defender chiefs are thought to be working for other than their clients,” she said.
That’s problematic, she said: “When they have to function in an environment that says to them, ‘I can’t make hard decisions that are in the best interest of my client, otherwise I lose my job,’ that is not effective representation."
Beer was hired in 2013, and was appointed to lead the office two years later. He was being paid $123,334 a year, according to county records. Hudson had been in her position since 2016, making $111,050 annually.
They oversaw an office that included nearly 30 defenders, who have handled a number of high-profile defendants in the county who could not afford private attorneys. Recently, that caseload has included Lawrence Crawley, who killed his ex-girlfriend outside her workplace, and Keenan Jones, who opened fire in a crowded Walmart in Cheltenham Township.
The office is also handling the case of Robert Fisher, who won an appeal last month and will have his fourth trial in 2021 on a decades-old murder in Norristown.
Hudson and Beer had successfully negotiated for a number of reforms, including bringing an end to the practice of extending probation without a hearing for those who couldn’t pay restitution. Recently, the office also created a new position, chief of mental health, to specifically handle cases where those issues play a significant role. Coincidentally, Nester was given that assignment, which involves working with county prosecutors to create resolutions for defendants that best suit their treatment needs.
Bradford-Grey, who preceded Beer as chief in Montgomery County before coming to Philadelphia, said advocating for systemic reforms is part of the job. The Defender Association of Philadelphia, an independent nonprofit agency funded by the city, last year sued Philadelphia courts over what it said were illegal practices in lodging detainers to hold people accused of probation violations.
“It’s a nontransparent system and if the people who are insiders can’t collaborate with those who are feeling the impact of the justice system practices, then what are we here for?” she said. “Indigent defense is not just you go to the court and argue the facts. If not us, understanding the complexities of the system but also having access to file the motions, file the briefs on behalf of the indigent, then who?”