The Advocate

By Chad Galts / September / October 2000
October 29th, 2007
After she graduated from Boston University’s law school in 1985, Kristine Allen Kerr thought she was going to write wills for a living. She moved to St. Louis, got a clerkship with the Missouri Court of Appeals, and eventually landed a good job at a private firm, where she handled divorces, worker’s compensation cases, and personal-injury lawsuits. But there was something wrong: She was bored. She wanted to argue cases that mattered in front of a judge and jury.

Kerr was wasn’t sure exactly what kind of cases she wanted until she stopped at the St. Louis County Circuit Court one day to observe a murder trial handled by the public defender’s office. The defendants had broken into an old man’s house, had robbed and beaten him, and had thrown him into a large freezer. Then they’d sat down on top of the freezer and drunk beer until the man had suffocated. (All the men were found guilty; one was sentenced to death.) Kerr had found the kind of practice she liked — lost causes, with plenty of time in the courtroom — even though it would cost her a big cut in pay.

In the thirteen years since, Kerr has tried more than forty cases as a public defender and dispatched as many as 960 others through plea arrangements. She has overseen every conceivable kind of crime, including eight capital-murder cases. The work is nothing like the story line of a television courtroom drama, with its unrelentingly evil villains and tangled thickets of motivation and evidence. For people like Kris Kerr, violent crime is usually not very complex or psychological; more often its brutality is matched only by its banality. And criminals — even those charged with the most unspeakable crimes — are not always unambiguously evil. Kerr’s job is to make sure that people who can’t afford to hire their own lawyers still get a fair shake.

Now second in command in the St. Louis City Public Defender’s Office, Kerr has to handle the mundane as well as the gruesome. She not only deals with the dead bodies, traumatized witnesses, and other victims of daily crime in St. Louis, she has to keep up with the administrative headaches that come with running a government office. These days, she says, much of her time is spent on the unglamorous task of making sure that the defendants handled by her office — about 8,000 every year — get access to such things as basic social services.

The vast majority of the clients who come through Kerr’s office are, she says, "young black males who have never had a father figure in their lives, are involved with drugs, and dropped out of school in the eleventh grade." Many of them are functionally illiterate and have diagnosable mental problems; all are very poor. In order to qualify for representation from the public defender’s office, in fact, clients must meet the legal requirement for indigence: they must be juveniles, or they must make less than $100 a week and have less than $500 in savings. Kerr’s clients almost never commit carefully orchestrated, prudently masterminded criminal capers. They are often under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and their crimes are more often a result of poor impulse control than of a criminal disposition.

Kerr and her colleagues defend most of the people charged with crimes in St. Louis — one of the most crime-plagued cities in the country. Although she doesn’t spend as much time in the courtroom as she used to, Kerr’s seniority and experience make her, she says, "the go-to girl" for the attorneys in her office. They come to her for advice on an endless stream of cases — from minor misdemeanors and domestic abuse to car thefts and serious, dead-victim felonies. Kerr doles out her wisdom on everything from how to structure a plea bargain to how to manage the sometimes quixotic members of the St. Louis judiciary.

People with stressful jobs develop coping mechanisms for dealing with their daily doses of work, and Kerr is no exception: she is a study in contrasts. A petite woman with fine features and large, bright-blue eyes, she wears rimless spectacles and conservatively stylish clothes — if you saw her on the street you might think she worked in a bank. On her desk in a basement office of the dank-smelling city-court building downtown sit smiling photographs of her husband, Ray, and their two young children. Sometimes, in the midst of discussing a rape or a murder, Kerr has to take a personal call to deal with other pressing matters, such as a consult with her pediatrician on her three-year-old daughter’s bottom rash. But the moment Kerr turns her attention back to her work, something very different emerges. Speaking in clipped, forceful bursts devoid of adjectives (though she is no stranger to profanity), she exudes a flinty, sharp-edged toughness. During consultations with the attorneys on her staff, Kerr’s grit is balanced by a lively, if macabre, sense of humor.

"This is extremely demanding work," she explains, leaning forward and joining her hands over the large, cheaply made steel desk in her office, while a small electric water fountain bubbles incongruously nearby. "Some people have philosophical reasons for becoming public defenders," she says when trying to describe the reasons a perfectly good lawyer might become one. "They prefer the underdog. But it’s not necessarily just the Joan of Arcs who want to throw themselves in front of a bus who get into this—"

She is interrupted by a knock on the door. A young attorney named Chris Wegner walks in and begins a conversation with the same words most of Kerr’s colleagues do: "I’ve got a guy..." This guy is a twenty-year-old male charged with two counts of rape. The prosecutor has told Wegner out of court that two more counts are on the way. "He raped three different women in eight hours," Wegner says.

"Only a young man..." Kerr begins sardonically.

"Yeah, I’ve been hearing that a lot lately," Wegner deadpans.

They discuss the details of the case: The prosecutor will cut the client some slack if he pleads guilty to the first two counts, but he is unwilling to include the second two counts in the plea agreement — not a good deal for the client. Looking for some mitigating factor that might help the man, who has no alibi and who left DNA evidence at every stop along his rape spree, Kerr and Wegner grasp at two flimsy straws: he wasn’t carrying a gun, and he didn’t rob his victims. "Basically, he’s one of these guys who knows he’s guilty, but when he realizes how deep the shit really is, he denies everything. That’s why I like these guys — they’re consistent," Wegner adds with a grin, leaning back in his chair. "They will not plead guilty under any circumstances."

"Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds," Kerr says, the faint hint of a smile crossing her face. "What else you got?"

Lawyers who like to win should not become public defenders. Kerr says that an important adjustment she has had to make has been getting used to taking on cases that in all likelihood she will lose. "Winning" a case becomes an entirely different concept. "Sometimes you have to be happy with the crumbs," she says. "Sometimes I would say, ‘I made the jury doubt for two hours on that one!’ But then one jury delivered a verdict on one of my friend’s guys before he even made it to the water fountain — I don’t think they even bothered to elect a foreman." One of Kerr’s sources of professional pride, she says, is that she has never had a jury deliver a verdict in under sixty-one minutes.

In some cases, Kerr does her best to tell her clients that a trial isn’t in their best interest — the evidence against them is so strong that no jury in its right mind would acquit them. But trial-hungry clients often have ideas about the criminal-justice system based on their television-viewing habits, Kerr says. They imagine they are characters in a complicated story; they think there’s a chance for an acquittal, even after the prosecution plays their videotaped confession during trial. The public defender’s role in these situations, Kerr emphasizes, is not in determining the guilt or innocence of a client. "The jury decides the case," she explains. "The public defender just does his job by forcing the prosecution to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. Strange but true," she says of her clients, "they do lie to us. But the possibility does exist that they’re telling the truth."

If you take the generalized distaste most of the public feels for lawyers and boost it a notch or two, you will end up with some notion of how most people view public defenders. This species of lawyer spends all its time on the wrong side of the law, advocating for the bad guys. Alexa Shabecoff, director of Harvard Law School’s Office of Public Interest Advising, stresses to students who are interested in becoming public defenders that they "need to understand the inherent value of the job — even if the rest of society doesn’t." The students who persist in their plans, she says, "typically like to serve individuals, and they like to think they can help balance the scales of justice a little bit."

These arguments ring true for Kerr as well, but she is reluctant to think of herself as an idealist or a crusader. Sure, she and others like her are embodiments of the lofty principles expressed in the Constitution’s sixth amendment — that "in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right . . . to have the assistance of counsel for his defense." However, says Kerr, "as soon as you start yapping about the Constitution, people switch seats. If that was [all that] sustained me I would have quit this a long time ago." Kerr has increasingly come to appreciate the complexities and applications of the law. "When you’re younger," she says, "it’s hard to take the advocacy out of [this job] and concentrate on the analysis. As I get older I can separate these things a little more easily. I would rather have someone say, ‘You did a great job trying that case.’ "

After her first two years as a general-assignment public defender, Kerr took on the lost-cause challenge of a lifetime when she transferred into Missouri’s newly formed capital-crimes division. Unlike lawyers in the trial division, who can work as many as a eighty cases simultaneously, capital-crimes attorneys represent only five to eight clients, and they try only one case at a time. Capital-crimes cases have two phases: a trail and the sentencing hearing that follows. Kerr had plenty of experience defending her clients in trials, but the sentencing hearing is a felon’s last chance at getting a break. She approached that part of the process with particular care, researching the background of each client to the time of his (or, less commonly, her) birth, looking for mitigating evidence and possible justifications for leniency.

It is the penalty phase of capital-crime trials that takes the heaviest toll on everyone involved, Kerr says. In one of her cases, which involved the rape and murder of two women, she remembers sitting in court watching a family videotape of the victims singing Christmas carols. "Everyone in the courtroom was in tears," she says. "Afterwards, I just remember going into the hall to cry, to ask myself, ‘How can I do this with my life?’ " The answer, she decided, was that the system was going to work only if she, the prosecutors, and the police made their best efforts. "There is no greater honor than to stand up there and ask to spare someone’s life," she says. "And there is no greater responsibility than, as a prosecutor, to ask someone to take it."

When Kerr and her husband decided they were going to have a family, Kris knew she needed a change. People facing death row need an attorney who is single-minded, she says, a quality that is difficult for a new mother to sustain. Rather than look for work outside the public-defender system — her extensive litigation experience might have landed her a fairly lucrative position with a private firm — Kerr decided to take a management position in her old office.

This would allow her to follow a more regular schedule and to use her experience to train young lawyers. Besides, Kerr says, by this time she had decided that being a public defender went to the core of her identity as a lawyer. "I’d been punching with my left for so many years," she says, "I thought it would be a lot harder to punch with my right." Then she adds, "Just getting paid a lot of money doesn’t bring you happiness in this world. I don’t want to look back at my life and say the only reason I did something was for the money."

One of Kerr’s biggest supporters was her husband, Ray, an air-traffic supervisor at the Spirit of St. Louis airport. (As a couple they may qualify for the biggest professional stress load in the state of Missouri — or, as Ray likes to say, "We always have the most interesting careers at any cocktail party we go to.") When they were first married, Ray, a mild-mannered native of St. Louis, was interested in the cases his wife was working on; he referred to her clients as "our hero." That interest, he says, has abated over time and with the addition of James, and then Megan two years later, to their family. But Ray’s pride in his wife’s work remains fierce: "She gets up there and advocates for people we don’t want anything to do with," he says. "She manages every day in a world most of us don’t even know exists."

The gap between the worlds in which Kris Kerr lives and works is only a few miles wide physically, but in almost every other sense it is an enormous distance that must crossed daily. The office of the public defender is just down the street from the arch, directly in the center of St. Louis — a city that last year ranked near the top of American cities in homicides per capita. By contrast, the Kerrs’ brick, white-trimmed, ranch-style home and wide, carefully tended lawn are on a quiet street around the corner from a brightly lit Linens-N-Things and a shopping mall.

The differences between the halves of her life are striking, but Kerr doesn’t have time to ponder them. "We have no lives outside family and work," she says. "I get James to school, go to work, get home by six, cook dinner, put them to bed, and by nine I go downstairs and work." When Kerr does watch television, she says, it’s usually an episode of The Simpsons, "where the worst thing that can happen is that Homer burns the bratwurst."

Kerr sometimes wonders about what she might do when the kids get a little older. She might like to get back into the swing of things and work more trials, even though, as she says, "every trial takes a piece out of you — and the more serious the charges, the bigger the piece." Still, Kerr feels she has some of the old fire in her. Sometimes she even wonders about returning to work in the capital-crimes division.

However it works out, it’s inevitable that she’ll end up standing on the side of the courtroom where the bad guys are. They may have done awful things, and they may be the kind of people no one else wants to have anything to do with, but Kerr is going to keep on defending them. Her reasons for keeping on are, after all, pretty simple: "You get to do things for people who can’t do it for themselves. You get to do the right thing."

What do you think?
See what other readers are saying about this article and add your voice. 
Related Issue
September / October 2000