Highlights of a Philly public defender intern

One of my favorite jobs was serving as an intern for the Defender Association of Philadelphia. I went to the jails, the courtrooms, and the training rooms to learn how to properly defend persons charged with various crimes.
The prison was tough. You never knew if the defendant was telling the truth or not. You simply interviewed him for the basic information and wrote up his story for a trial lawyer to review before speaking to the suspect and going to trial. You never saw the person again and you had no idea how he may have faired.

Trial work was different. As a third-year law student, I was given the chance to actually speak up for a client to a “trial commissioner,” an official who acted as a judge but usually lacked a law degree. In the Courtroom of Judge Michael Stiles, however, I rose to the occasion and had my most shining moment as a public defender. My client was a veteran who was charged with an assault but failed to show up for his court date with the judge. A bench warrant for his arrest was issued and the man remained “at large” for about a year.
I met him in Philadelphia City Hall’s lock-up and learned about his plight. I forget the reason for his failure to appear, also known as an “FTA,” and how he decided to clear it up.
He was in the Veterans Administration’s Coatesville Medical Center getting treatment for some malady. One of the things he decided to do was to turn himself in and face the consequences of his actions. He arranged public transportation to travel 40 miles to the City of Brotherly Love. It took nearly two hours to get to Philly and he was immediately placed in the lock-up when he reported in.
Interns hardly ever appeared in front of regular judges. We handled the FTAs when a defendant was picked up and a court official who was not a lawyer would hear the excuse for the failure to appear and either impose a fine or order the person held in jail until the next trial listing.

But an intern actually got to see a judge when a “Judge-OnlyFTA was issued. That’s how I appeared in front of Judge Stiles.
Immediately, I said there was no excuse for my client’s actions; he should have come to court to defend himself against the charges. Instead, he foolishly hoped the charges would be dropped in his absence, and he violated a subpoena to go to court.
I also spoke highly about being a veteran and how he voluntarily committed himself to the VA facility where they provide a whole wing just for those with PTSD. I also told the judge he came to Philadelphia on his own with no car and very little money.
Judge Stiles, who once served as US attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, was no soft touch while on the bench. He was appointed the homicide calendar judge in Philadelphia and heard homicide cases exclusively shortly after my intern appearance before him.
The judge overruled all arguments by the more seasoned assistant district attorney, evidently wanting to give the young man a second chance after learning of his veteran status and the fact that he traveled on his own to rectify his court misconduct. Judge Stiles lifted the bench warrant and let my client be free on bail pending his next court date.
I felt honored to have been given the chance as an intern to serve another person, a veteran who needed someone to simply help him tell his story.
Looking back, I would say that I’d gladly do it again today . . .


Judge Stiles left the bench some 10 years ago and was hired by the Philadelphia Phillies as their vice president for administration and operations. He retired from the Phillies in 2017.

  • (Note: I wrote this blog post in response to a petition I signed in support of asking Congress to pass the Pay Our Interns Action Program. The group discovered that at one time, only nine percent of Congressional offices paid a salary to the interns.

If you’ve held an internship in the past, can you tell them about it? They’ll share your stories with the administration and elected officials in a fight to end unpaid internships and end the exploitation of young workers. Click this link to “SHARE YOUR STORY

10 comments on “Highlights of a Philly public defender intern

  1. p42morrow says:

    Way to go, Michael! I know the feeling that you’ve made a small difference. I worked at Legal Services for 8 years, when the burn-out span was 5 years.

    Liked by 1 person

    • contoveros says:

      Yeah, the work can really be a grind on you but you make the best of things with what you got and hope things will eventually improve.
      I found that in most cases they did, and you eventually head out to Bucks County and live happily ever after!


  2. LaDonna Remy says:

    It sounds like you a truly rewarding experience.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Helps one believe that truth can prevail !

    Liked by 1 person

    • contoveros says:

      Thanks for the re-blogging. It’s a real honor.
      Now let’s see if we can get a few more people to share their intern stories and help out the young workers in Washington, DC!~


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