By Heather Spaulding
The bedrock of the United States legal system is the presumption of innocence until found guilty and the right to a fair trial. Alex Frix, San Juan County’s new public defender, takes both concepts seriously.
“To me, the presumption of innocence isn’t just important, it’s sacred,” Frix said. Frix began heading up the newly created San Juan County Public Defender’s office in December, but he is no stranger to islands.
Frix, along with his wife and kids, has visited frequently for 15 years, and have family that lives locally. Frix wanted to be closer to family, he explained, in a special community.
“Most of my memories are with nieces and nephews growing up are here,” Frix said. “I proposed to my wife here. We were married here. Our kids were baptized here. It means a lot to me to be able to serve folks in a beautiful community that has given so much to my family.”
Frix wants islanders to get to know their defenders and learn about what they do, he said. While Frix is the only attorney in the department, others may fill in for him should he have a conflict of interest.
“We’re public servants that kind of fly under the radar compared to other folks in the justice system,” Frix said. “The prosecutor, judges, sheriff, and superior court clerk are all elected, but this is the first time that San Juan County has established its own Public Defender Office. It’s kind of a big deal. It’s not every day that a small county creates a new department.”
His office’s mission will be, “To defend our community’s constitutional and human rights, one person at a time,” according to Frix.
“This is a partnership,” Frix said. “We can work together with the sheriff, the prosecutor, the judges, and other folks in government to make life better for everyone.”
According to Frix, public defenders are important due to two premises: that people are presumed to be innocent unless the government proves they are guilty, and that everyone accused of a crime has a constitutional right to be represented by an attorney. Frix pointed out that the presumption of innocence dates back to the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi in 1754 BCE. The code was the earliest set of laws ever written down.
“That means that the presumption of innocence and burden of proof are legal concepts that predate the Ten Commandments by hundreds of years,” Frix said.
Frix’s journey toward becoming a public defender began in college after taking business law at University of Washington. It was the most interesting thing in business school, so he decided to attend law school. During an internship with the Lane County District Attorney in Eugene, Oregon, he discovered his passion for criminal law and the courtroom, he explained. Frix moved to Olympia with his wife and began working as a public defender in Pierce County.
Frix said he represented a lot of veterans early in his career, partially because of Thurston County’s close proximity to Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
“My Dad was a 100 percent disabled vet who served in Vietnam and the First Gulf War. He had PTSD, Agent Orange Exposure, and Gulf War Syndrome,” Frix said. “I started to represent a lot of clients who were going through a lot of the struggles my dad went through.”
Their service-connected conditions were landing them in jail. He had an epiphany after listening to a National Public Radio segment about the first Veterans Treatment Court in Buffalo, New York. With support from staff at a well-established Thurston County Mental Health Court, corrections deputies and law enforcement officers, many of whom are veterans, wanted to see how things could be done differently.
“There was buy-in from pretty much all of the stakeholders,” Frix said.
Frix explained that while veterans courts are complex, they essentially work by first identifying veterans who have become defendants in the justice system. If their case qualifies, it can be diverted from the normal justice system into a treatment court.
In a treatment court, charges can be reduced or dismissed providing they graduate from a rigorous program with lots of supervision. The veterans also work closely with social workers and Veterans Affairs staff to ensure their service-related issues are being addressed and not putting them at risk for re-offending. They have regular court appearances with the judge where they directly discuss a variety of issues impacting not only them but their families as well.
“The main goal for everyone is to make sure they succeed and don’t get in trouble again,” Frix said. “You work shoulder-to-shoulder with experts from the county, Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.”
That level of cooperation from a variety of government agencies, he added, has been miraculous, and has profoundly affected veterans’ lives.
“It’s not uncommon for a veteran to say in open court during a vet court session, ‘Getting arrested on this case is the best thing that ever happened to me and it saved my life.’” Frix said. “Most of my vet court clients were with me for at least two years, so I would get to know them and their families pretty intimately.”
Frix added that seeing them rebuild their lives and knit back together with their families, if they’ve been separated due to their struggles, is extremely powerful.
“I identify a lot with the clients’ and victims’ kids because they are going through a lot of the stuff my family experienced,” he said.
Frix won the Local Hero award from the Washington State Bar Association, as well as from the Washington Department of Veterans Affairs, the Governor’s Veterans Advisory Committee, and the Washington Defender Association for his work with veterans and beginning a veterans court in Thurston County.
The key to being a good public defender, according to Frix, is listening.
“You can’t help someone if they don’t feel heard,” he said.
The job does not come without challenges, Frix explained. He cited resources and reputation as the two primary hurdles. Frix said he has been called a “public pretender” more than once, and expects he will be called one again. The reputation of public defenders among people who have repeatedly been traumatized in the criminal court system is abysmal, he explained. This is due in part because of overworked and underpaid defenders.
“I have been told by accused folks that they don’t want my services, even if they are indigent and qualify financially because they want to hire a real lawyer,” Frix said. “I don’t blame them. After decades of excessive caseloads and low pay for defenders in many jurisdictions, it’s no wonder that many folks have experienced generational trauma due to being represented by bad public defenders.”
Washington Supreme Court, however, instituted caseload limits, Frix explained. As a result, there are fewer “dump truck lawyers,” overwhelmed public defenders with impossible workloads, which lead to injustice, he said.
“Compared to other states, Washington does a good job of having a degree of pay parity between prosecutors and public defenders,” Frix said, adding that there are places where public defenders earn one-third of their prosecutor colleagues pay, and often without the same benefits.
“We’re also fortunate to have a county government that sees the potential benefits of having a robust public defense system and creating a new department to that end,” Frix said.
Another challenge comes from the general public.
“Hardly anyone wants to pay for criminals to have a ‘free lawyer,’” Frix said. “Public defense accounts for less than 10 percent of a government’s law and justice budget, yet the public defender is literally the only constitutionally mandated player in that system.”
Illustrating the importance of defenders, Frix told the story of Joshua Giles, who was accused of robbing a casino he said he had never been in. Giles was potentially facing being locked up for decades for a crime he did not commit, according to Frix.
“Within four days of meeting him, all of his charges were dismissed and he was freed,” Frix said. “Those were some of the most stressful days of my life. I worked my butt off to try and get him out.”
Frix noted that he broke down in tears when he was informed Giles was being released.
“To paraphrase JFK, ‘You don’t become a public defender because it is easy, but because it is hard,’” Frix said. “It’s very tough and very rewarding work. It’s a privilege.”