In Memoriam

Friday Flashback – Paul Kelley finds lots of good to defend among us (1983)

Paul Kelley finds lots of good to defend among us

By Mark Patinkin

Thursday, November 10, 1983 Page A-3

Public defenders aren’t supposed to last long.  The pay is mediocre, the hours difficult and you can only spend so many years representing indigent B&E artists.  Well, indigent alleged B&E artists.  Most public defenders leave for private practice by the time they’re 35, usually younger.

THAT’S WHY I wanted to talk with Paul Kelley.  Last week, he marked his 25th year as a public defender.  He is now 60.  That’s a point where more successful attorneys are enjoying big salaries, big offices, big prestige.  Kelley is still representing indigent alleged B&E artists.  He works out of a small room in the Superior Court building.  There are no diplomas on the wall.  The furniture is 1940s institutional and the file drawers are made of cardboard.  I asked how much he makes.  He had to look it up.  “The base is $32,000,” he said.  “But I make 38 with longevity.”  I asked how he’s managed to last so long.  He smiled and said it was simple:  He likes the job.

AS WE TALKED, I kept thinking how I’d expected him to look different.  I figured anyone who’d spent this many years working face to face with crime would have the same kind of hard-bitten cynicism you find in older policemen.  If anything, he is the opposite.  He talks often about his faith in people and that bad cliché about twinkling Irish eyes really applies in this case.

Criminal lawyers have been a common enough target lately, often called the hired guns of our time.  I wanted to know if he is ever asked the obvious question: How can he defend those people?  “Well,” he said, “a police officer once asked me how can I got church and defend that guy?  Lo and behold, he turned out to be innocent.”I asked if the relatives of victims ever approach him during a trial.  I imagined how the parents of a rape victim must feel about the man defending the accused rapist.  “Gee,” said Kelley, “they’ve always been polite with me.  They don’t even take it out on the lawyer at all.  I’ve even had them say, “I know you’re just doing your job, Mr. Kelley.”

I TOLD HIM that if I had his job, I’d probably be worn down pretty quickly by the more hardcore defendants.  He said many people see it that way, but the reality is different.  “A lot of robbery cases for example,” said Kelley, “are first offenders who were despondent.”

Still, I said, how long can you stand by those who prefer to make it by ripping off others?  “It’s really not like you think,” said Kelley.  “Years ago , I remember I kept a record of my cases.  And at one point, 30 or 40 in a row came from broken homes.  In many cases, when the jurors came in with a guilty verdict, they’ve got tears in their eyes.”


HE EXPLAINED that public defenders rarely have clients who are getting fat off crime.  They’re usually just desperate souls.  Few of those who burglarize homes get much money out of it he said.  I told him many would say however much a criminal steals, if he breaks into a home, he is an animal.  “I don’t think they’re animals,” said Kelley.  “I’m not saying that a man who does that is right.  It’s wrong.  And he should be punished.  But the man’s not an animal.  There’s some good in everybody.”

I asked about defending those he suspected might be guilty.  “Well,” said Kelley, “if you were accused and you were innocent, you wouldn’t want your lawyer wondering whether  or not you were worth defending.”  It’s a fine system, he said, and it could not survive if lawyers on both sides did not perform their roles.  I’d already taken an hour of his day, I jumped to my last few questions.  What would you say to a young public defender just starting?  What is the key to lasting 25 years?  Idealism, mostly?

HE SAID, IDEALISM is only a small part of it.  Mostly, it was being dedicated to hard work.  “You often have to go visit clients in jail on nights and weekends,’ he said.  “Sometimes I’d take my kids with me.  They’d say “We’re going to daddy’s jail.’”  I put down the question list then and came back to what first intrigued me about him.  How, after 25 years dealing daily with people charged with murder, rape and robbery, could he not be a little jaded about human nature?  “They all have good points,” said Kelley.

He told me of the guy who’d won the Purple Heart, and the good father, and others and others and others.  The courts, he said, are not full of evil people; they’re full of just people led toward bad by an outside influence: liquor, trauma, desperation.  Most, he said, will pay for what they’ve done, but all have a right to an advocate who will ensure they get as good a chance as they can.

I LEFT THINKING that Paul Kelley has more faith in human nature than I could ever have.  Like many others, I’d often like to just throw away the key.  But it has been said that the measure of a nation’s civility is how well it takes care of its difficult cases.  Kelley helps take care of ours.  I think most of us are grateful there are hard-working idealist like him who will.


Post Script:

Kelley retired from the Rhode Island Public Defenders Office in 1983 and was its charter inductee into the RIPD Hall of Fame.  Kelley also was active in his West Elmwood Providence neighborhood and both a wing of a community center and housing units for families affected by AIDS have been named in his honor.  Kelley died on December 29, 2003 due to complications from Alzheimers.