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Johnson running tight ship in county public defender office

Leisa Johnson, right, goes over a case file with her chief assistant, Troy Golden. Johnson has headed Dougherty Judicial Circuit’s Public Defender Office for a decade. The office has a staff of 15 people. (July 19, 2013)

Leisa Johnson, right, goes over a case file with her chief assistant, Troy Golden. Johnson has headed Dougherty Judicial Circuit’s Public Defender Office for a decade. The office has a staff of 15 people. (July 19, 2013)

ALBANY -- Leisa Johnson stares to her right, toward the courtrooms just outside her office walls, as she ponders the question.

Is it difficult, as Dougherty Circuit public defender, to plead the cases of defendants you know are guilty, often of incredibly heinous crimes?

"It's really not," Johnson says matter-of-factly. "Under the American justice system, every person is entitled to be zealously defended by competent legal representation. And while our system is not perfect, I believe it is one of the best in the world.

"But I also remember that, but for the grace of God I might be where many of those defendants are now. I have a lot of friends who grew up just like I did who died or prostituted themselves, but for whatever reason, God allowed me to get out. God had favor on me, or I could be one of those defendants."

Johnson has been the Dougherty Judicial Circuit's public defender since the state Legislature paved the way for such a position in 2003 with passage of the Georgia Indigent Defense Act. The statute allowed the state's judicial circuits to appoint a public defender. With the shift, the burden of funding indigent defense, which had rested solely on county governments to that point, was shared by the state and its counties.

A five-member committee was appointed in each circuit to select a public defender, who would be charged with setting up an office through which indigent defense in the county would be coordinated. In Dougherty County, that committee -- then-District Attorney Ken Hodges and attorneys John Vansant, Mark Phillips, Robert Beauchamp and Maurice King -- selected Johnson, who has remained at the position since.

"When Leisa came to Albany and applied for a position in the district attorney's office, I immediately liked her," Hodges, now in private practice in Atlanta, said of Johnson. "I was impressed with her professionalism, and she turned out to be a very smart hire for me.

"When she applied for the circuit public defender position, I was a big advocate on her behalf. She got the job on merit, but I thought it was pretty significant that she was the first African-American female in the state to be selected as public defender. I knew she would represent her clients well and likewise represent Dougherty County well. I think the world of her and the job she's done."

Almost a decade into her tenure, Johnson is lauded by local officials for the work she and her staff do on behalf of the hundreds of indigent defendants who make their way through the county's court system each year. Despite the fact her office has cleared more than 23,000 cases since 2005, Johnson has managed to trim her office's budget from some $1.4 million to less than $900,000.

"My question when I consider this office's budget is 'How much does it actually cost to run an office like this?'" Johnson said. "I don't tolerate personal business being conducted out of this office; I will fire someone over that. We are responsible to the taxpayers of this county. I'm a property owner myself, so while I'm fair to my employees and make sure our clients get the best defense possible, we're going to be responsible to the people paying our salaries."

Obviously, the little girl who at 9 years old still couldn't read and was on her way to becoming an inner-city statistic before her Albany grandmother intervened has come a long way.

Raised just outside the nation's capital in Maryland, Johnson's grandmother in Albany discovered during one of Johnson's frequent visits that even at age 9, she could not read, didn't know her colors and couldn't distinguish her right hand from her left.

That same grandmother insisted that little Leisa come live with her at age 10, and for the next three years she had a retired teacher tutor Leisa. By the time she returned to Maryland at age 13, she'd caught up and then some. She graduated as valedictorian of her high school class and with high honors at the University of Maryland, College Park.

"I used to cry when I came to stay with my grandmother," Johnson says. "We'd visit her brother's farm in Eufala. Ala., and we'd all take baths in the same water and use an outhouse. There were all these mosquitoes we didn't have in Maryland, and we picked and ate vegetables that didn't come in a can.

"Adjustment was difficult for me, but I realized later I was exposed to a lot of good things. Being here changed my life."

Johnson earned a law degree at prestigious George Washington University and practiced civil law for 10 years before applying for a position in Albany. Then-district attorney Britt Priddy didn't hire Johnson, but when Hodges replaced Priddy in the office, he brought her on board as an assistant district attorney.

One of Hodges' other hires, Brigham Young University graduate Troy Golden, would become close friends with Johnson and the first person she contacted when she became circuit public defender.

"I've never had a more loyal friend than Troy," Johnson said of her chief assistant. "I trust him with my life. I called him as soon as I was named to this position, and although he couldn't come right away, he's been with me since 2006. He's crucial to keeping this office running."

Johnson worked in the district attorney's office for four years before transitioning into private practice. She's only been on her own a little more than a year when the Georgia Indigent Defense Act passed and her name was one of those discussed as a candidate to fill the position.

Chief Superior Court Judge Willie Lockette was one of those who sang Johnson's praises.

"I'd been impressed with Leisa's professionalism in matters she advocated for the state before me," Lockette said. "I was impressed with her respect for the court, her knowledge of the law and the passion she carried for her profession. I definitely thought she would be a strong candidate for the circuit public defender's position.

"I think she has proven herself, and Dougherty County has been blessed to have her in that office. Her courtroom skills and her ability to motivate her staff in what can be perceived as a thankless job has been exemplary. In our country, everyone has a right to be defended not just by a lawyer but by a lawyer who is competent and able to provide a zealous defense. Leisa Johnson has done a yeoman's job of providing a high level of indigent defense, and that's not always been the case in Georgia and other states."

In the public defender's office, Johnson is responsible for hiring attorneys and staff who represent defendants unable to pay the cost of their day in court. In addition to Golden, assistant public defenders among the 15-person staff in the Dougherty circuit include Sandra Satchell, a graduate of the Rutgers School of Law; Betty Moore (South Texas College of Law); Kevin Armstrong (University of Georgia); Marcus Roberts (University of Georgia); Charles Arnold (Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University), and Randall Sharp (Florida Coastal School of Law).

Golden said the switch from prosecution in the district attorney's office to defense has not been particularly difficult.

"You learn all aspects of the law in law school, so you come into the profession prepared either way," the Albany native said. "I came to the public defender's office in January of 2006 primarily because of Leisa. We clicked when we worked together in the D.A.'s office, and I've always appreciated the focus she places on the rights of her clients, no matter the charges they face.

"Caseload is always an issue in this office; that and training young lawyers. I like the fact that any person -- poor, rich, black, white -- has an opportunity to get not just representation, but zealous representation, in our justice system. That's why I love this job."

The circuit public defender's office, whose attorneys each carry a typical caseload of 160 clients at any given time, is budgeted to receive $819,562 from Dougherty County this year and $500,017 from the state. County Administrator Richard Crowdis said Johnson has worked hard to reduce her office's budget.

"We do not deal with the legal aspects of her work in the courts, but from a professional perspective I feel that the county made an excellent choice in Leisa," Crowdis said. "She works hard with her budget, and she has done an excellent job for Dougherty County of conserving and managing that budget.

"In my limited capacity of working with her, I've found her to be someone who can make the tough decisions, work efficiently and really take a hard-core approach to being a steward of taxpayers' money."

Johnson admits that her job can be a grind, with political overtones a particularly thorny additional burden.

"I've had people file false accusations against me, and I've had an elected official walk in and tell me, 'People don't want you here; you need to learn to play the game,'" Johnson says. "I told that person that neither he nor any person put me where I am, that God put me here for a reason. No matter what's happened in my life, I've never left the presence of God.

"God gave me the strength to take care of my dad when he was dying of cancer; I've been through a divorce that was directly related to this job, and I stayed weeks at a time with my mother when she was going through lung cancer. That's where my strength comes from. And until God decides this is not where I need to be, I'll continue to work on my clients' behalf."