Feb. 21 open house to introduce Pearl River County Office of Public Defender

February 12, 2018

Pearl River County Circuit Court recently became the seventh in the state to create a full-time public defender office.

An open house is scheduled for 8 to 9 a.m. Feb. 21 in the new third floor Office of the Public Defender at the Pearl River County Courthouse in Poplarville. Mississippi Supreme Court Presiding Justice Jim Kitchens, chairman of the state Public Defender Task Force, will be the guest speaker.

Matthew D. Shoemaker is the new public defender. Lindsay G. Watts and Frederick “Andy” Johnson are assistant public defenders for Pearl River County.

Senior Circuit Judge Prentiss G. Harrell pushed to create a full-time Office of the Public Defender. Three public defenders will ensure adequate representation of defendants and save money for the county, he said. Three private practice attorneys previously served as part-time contract public defenders.

“The real constitutional,” Judge Harrell said. “We may have people who are falling through the cracks who are not being tended to.”

“The public defender will see the defendant immediately after that person is placed in jail,” Judge Harrell said. “In the past, part-time public defenders might not see their clients until after indictment, creating a void of several months.”

“Unfortunately we do have many indigent defendants in our state who simply cannot afford bail money. They languish in jail,” Judge Harrell said.

Indigent inmates who cannot afford bail remain an average of 135 days in jail in Pearl River County before their cases are resolved. Full time public defenders can reduce that time by as many as 80 days, creating a savings of $2,481.00 per inmate, based on an average daily cost of $31.02 to house an inmate at the Pearl River County.

Many defendants are willing to plead guilty. Having someone to move those cases forward will save money for the county by shortening the time that pre-trial defendants remain in the local jail.

Judge Harrell estimated the cost of operating a full-time public defender office at approximately $200,000 a year.

“I want to thank the Board of Supervisors of Pearl River county for their vision in enhancing the quality of the criminal justice system,” he said.

Six other Mississippi counties have a full-time public defender office. They are Forrest, Lamar, Harrison, Hinds, Jackson and Washington counties.

Shoemaker, the new Pearl River County Public Defender, previously served as law clerk in the Fifteenth Circuit Court District to Judge R. I. Prichard III, and then to Judge Anthony A. Mozingo. Before he became Public Defender, Shoemaker practiced primarily in the areas of personal injury defense and commercial litigation with the law firm of Zachary & Leggett, PLLC, in Hattiesburg.

He graduated from the University of New Orleans in 2006 and earned a law degree from the University of Mississippi School of Law in 2009.

Shoemaker is chairman of the Mississippi Bar’s Budget and Finance Committee and treasurer for the South Central Mississippi Bar Association. He is a member of the Young Lawyers Division Board of Directors, is chairman of the YLD Solo and Small Firm Committee and is former president of the Hattiesburg Area Young Lawyers Association. He represents the Fifteenth Circuit Court District on the Mississippi Board of Bar Commissioners. He was a member of the 2017 class of The Mississippi Bar Leadership Forum. He was president of the Kiwanis Club of Hattiesburg and was a member of the 2013 class of Leadership Pinebelt. In 2016, he was selected as one of the Top 12 Under 40 by the Hattiesburg American, and was awarded the inaugural Professional Promise Award by the Pine Belt Young Professionals.

Watts served as an assistant district attorney for the Fifteenth Circuit Court District for the past three years. She prosecuted special victim cases across the five-county district. She previously practiced civil litigation and transactional work at Young Williams, P. A. in Jackson. She moved to Hattiesburg in 2010 and joined the law firm of Bryan Nelson, P. A.

She graduated from the University of Southern Mississippi, with honors, in 2002, and earned a law degree from the University of Mississippi School of Law, graduating cum laude, in 2005. She participated in the University’s Criminal Appeals Clinic, representing criminal defendants in their appeals to the Mississippi appellate courts. She was Executive Articles Editor of the Mississippi Law Journal, a member of Moot Court Board and earned three Outstanding Student Awards for the highest grade in her class.

Watts served on the Young Lawyers Division Board of Directors as a representative of Hinds County and held various positions with Jackson Young Lawyers. She was awarded the Outstanding Service Award by Jackson Young Lawyers in 2007.

Johnson began his legal career as a solo practitioner in Jackson, representing clients in matters of family, criminal, and personal injury law. He joined the Diaz Law Firm in Madison in 2013. He focused on mass torts and products liability, representing clients who suffered injuries from pharmaceutical products and clients affected by the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. He also defended clients charged with criminal misdemeanors in the greater Jackson area.

Johnson attended Jones County Junior College and graduated with honors from the University of Southern Mississippi in 2006. He earned a law degree from the University of Mississippi School of Law in 2009. As a law student, he was an intern with the Mississippi Innocence Project and volunteered with North Mississippi Rural Legal Services. He is a member of the Mississippi Public Defender Association and the Mississippi Association for Justice.