No Justice For All

Steve Austin, a facilitator of Philadelphia's participatory defense program, talks about tapping the resources of the community that knows defendants.
Bastiaan Slabbers / Keystone Crossroads

It was an early autumn afternoon in 1975 — a moment that Steve Austin wishes he could take back.

Recalling that day recently, Austin took a deep breath, as if he were about to plunge into a deep, dark place.

“I killed a person. I took a person’s life,” he said. “It’s hard for me to talk about.”

Austin, 16 at the time, was selling ice cream at a street stand in his North Philadelphia neighborhood. That afternoon, he and a customer got into a heated exchange over a transaction.

The Blair County Courthouse sits on Allegheny Street in Hollidaysburg, PA. Private funding for the District Attorney Office and local law enforcement has put immense pressure on the county's public defenders.
Min Xian / Keystone Crossroads

Michael Fiore, 56, remembered, growing up, he never had to worry about drugs in his neighborhood or the violence that they sometimes inflict. He said, back then, his community in Blair County, home to Altoona and Hollidaysburg, was safe.

But as he got older, with the rise of the opioid crisis, he saw things change. 

Shawnray Byrd has been represented by the Allegheny County Public Defenders Office four times since 2001.
An-Li Herring / Keystone Crossroads

On a humid summer day, Shawnray Byrd works a new job renovating a home just outside Pittsburgh. During a break, he says he’s grateful to be employed and free.

“It’s like everything is just going uphill now,” he said.

The 37-year-old spent six months in jail after being charged with attempted homicide in 2017.  He said his public defender was crucial to his acquittal in March.

Pennsylvania Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, one of the most prominent voices for reforming Pennsylvania's public defense system, in his office in Montgomery County.
Emma Lee / WHYY

If you hunt hard enough around Harrisburg, it is possible to find lawmakers who are on board with allocating state money for the public defense of the poor.

Possible, but not easy.

One of the most prominent voices on the issue is State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf. The 78-year-old lawmaker, whose Harrisburg tenure dates back nearly four decades, has an issue with Pennsylvania’s system of public defense that is rooted in the U.S. Constitution.

Crystal Weimer was arrested in 2004 for third degree murder, a crime she didn’t commit. She spent nearly 12 years in prison and was exonerated on June 27, 2016, and all charges were dropped with prejudice.
Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

Crystal Weimer’s nightmare began in 2004, when she was arrested for a crime she didn’t commit.

“When you go to jail, your whole family goes to jail,” Weimer said. “It’s just like a ripple effect — it’s just not you.”

She was charged with the murder of Curtis Haith, a 21-year-old who dreamed of becoming a chef.  Haith was shot in the face and beaten to death in front of his home in Fayette County, about 50 miles south of Pittsburgh.