Public defender employs empathy

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Lawyer runs SADO’s Criminal Defense Resource Center

Rather than becoming resentful, Marilena David-Martin has used the challenges in her life to amplify her senses of empathy and compassion.

She adds to those qualities a strong work ethic, determination and a law degree earned in 2009 from Wayne State University Law School and uses the mix in her work helping prisoners and their families. David-Martin is an assistant defender at the State Appellate Defender Office and administrator of its Criminal Defense Resource Center.

In 2014, she was honored with the Justice for All Award by the Criminal Defense Attorneys of Michigan and the Regeana Myrick Outstanding Young Lawyer Award by the State Bar of Michigan's Young Lawyers Section.

David-Martin, a Detroit resident, grew up in Melvindale, one of three daughters of a father she describes as a good person who struggled with alcohol and drugs and a mother she describes as hard-working and generous. Her parents were divorced when David-Martin was young, and the family struggled financially.

"I didn't really know a life outside of our small community," David-Martin said. "I had no concept of college, as I am the first in my family to go on to higher education."

But it is another facet of her life she considers harder to handle.

"The biggest challenge I've ever faced is probably dealing with the health of my husband, Alessandro," David-Martin said. "My husband has an aggressive form of multiple sclerosis and has been through a lot over the nine years since his diagnosis at age 24. We were married three years into the diagnosis, and we both knew our lives would never be easy or predictable."

When David-Martin was in junior high school, she dreamed of being an administrative assistant. The next year, she changed that goal to being a paralegal.

"Somewhere along the line, I realized I wanted to do more, and I fixed my sight on law school," she said.

After high school, she earned a bachelor's degree at WSU in criminal justice and psychology and refined her goal to becoming a public defender.

"I really loved my undergraduate experience, and I knew I wanted to stay at Wayne State for law school," David-Martin said. "It was the only law school I applied to, as I knew I wanted to remain in the city I loved and where I wanted to serve the community."

After law school graduation, she went right to work in the Crime Lab Unit of the State Appellate Defender Office, became an assistant defender in 2012 and, in 2015, gained the title of administrator of the Criminal Defense Resource Center, which provides resources and trainings for criminal defense attorneys and prisoners throughout the state.

"Our mission is an important one, because court-appointed defense attorneys are often not on a level playing field with their prosecution counterparts," David-Martin said. "Many court-appointed defense attorneys are solo practitioners who are getting paid very few dollars to perform one of the most important functions in our society representing the accused. Defense attorneys often do not have access to proper research services (such as Westlaw or Lexis) because of the high cost of those programs, and they similarly may not be granted access to experts or investigators needed to help properly prepare the case for trial or for appeal because that depends on county funding, which is limited and hard to access."

The Criminal Defense Resource Center offers those defense attorneys and prisoners, as well access to resources, trainings and other services.

"We maintain a wealth of resources at our website, where attorneys can access our brief bank, a criminal defense forum, databases with re-entry services, expert witness transcripts and police misconduct documents, our Defender Book series, manuals, self-help resources and much more," David-Martin said. "Ultimately, the goal is to increase the quality of Michigan's indigent defense representation."

Under David-Martin's leadership, the Criminal Defense Resource Center began a three-day Appellate Writing Workshop.

"I planned the workshop with Brad Hall, administrator of the Michigan Appellate Assigned Counsel Systems, who, along with me, was also in his first year in his new position," she said. "We were both very motivated to make this a great training, and we were so happy that attendees immediately recognized its benefit."

The bottom line for David-Martin in all that she does is to benefit the people who are clients.

"I feel satisfaction every time I help a lawyer become a better advocate for his or her client," she said. "The best part of the job is knowing that I'm making a difference, one lawyer at a time."

She also maintains a "mini caseload" representing clients directly something that is outside her duties as the center administrator.

"Having my own caseload and clients is important to me and is not something I would ever give up," David-Martin said. "It takes a lot of organization and working long days and weekends to fit in all in."

As chair of her office's Client and Public Outreach Committee, she helped launch Family Outreach Night in 2012 to help families and friends of the incarcerated understand the appeals process and "navigate the Michigan Department of Corrections." David-Martin and attorney Jessica Zimbelman run the Family Outreach Night sessions four times a year in Detroit and Lansing.

The committee under her leadership also launched the Re-Entry Project in 2013.

"This project was developed because of the extreme hardship we see our clients face when they re-enter society after serving time in prison," David-Martin said.

She, with the help of attorney Jacqueline Ouvry and others, developed a database of service providers for ex-convicts. So far, the database lists about 100 providers, and it's still a work in progress, David-Martin said.

"We hope to use the database to help our clients prepare for parole and present a re-entry plan to the parole board in time for their parole interviews," she said. "It is important to note that these projects are successful because SADO staff is willing to put in this work after hours and in addition to their regular workloads."

The only way to improve the nation's criminal justice system, which leads the world in the percentage of citizens behind bars, is for people to begin seeing others, including those who've committed crimes, as fellow human beings, David-Martin said.

"Everyone did not go to that great school you went to and did not have the same loving parents that you had," she said. "Some people were abused as children, went to bed hungry every night, did not know where they would sleep at night, did not have a safe backyard to play in, have never had anyone care about them, did not have family they could call for help, did not have clean clothes to put on and could not afford to go to college," David-Martin said. "We live in a society where no one is perfect, but only a few are judged.

"Until we all begin to have empathy for one another and the circumstances that have led someone to the place they are, we are never going to have a fair and just system."

David-Martin volunteers for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and is captain of an annual fundraising team that has raised more than $70,000 since 2009. She also regularly volunteers at the Ronald McDonald House of Detroit, with various agencies that serve the city's homeless community and as a clown wrangler for America's Thanksgiving Parade.

Published: Mon, May 02, 2016

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