Episode two of Jessica Jones contains a private attorney’s quip about a previously assigned public defender, “I’m your new attorney. You should be more excited. You stick with the public defender that they’ve assigned you and you’ll end up spending your next two lifetimes behind bars.” The remark in Jessica Jones may be a dig specific to New York’s issues with court appointed counsel, but the sentiment is more poignant in the second season of Daredevil.
In Daredevil season two, episode six, we’re introduced to Frank Castle’s public defender, Christopher Roth. Foggy Nelson asks if it is Roth’s first case. Roth notes that he had a previous domestic violence case that he had won. He does, however, qualify exonerating his client by stating that he does not condone violence against women. Later in the episode Nelson comments on Roth, “We met that bench warmer, not the freshest fish the city could’ve drummed up, but he’s in the running.” When the death penalty is mentioned Karen Page states that, “The public defender is all but ready to roll over and help.” Finally, Matt Murdoch chimes in, “The PD doesn’t seem all that prepared to tackle this case. Unlike his [Frank Castle] current legal counsel, we can actually help him.”
The commentary from the entire firm of Nelson and Murdock is inapposite where Nelson and Murdock’s first case was defending Karen Page when she was accused of murder. Roth actually had more experience before his first murder case, but Roth is hypocritically dismissed as utterly incompetent without further reason. The only defining difference between Roth’s inexperience and Nelson and Murdock’s inexperience is that Roth is a public defender. When Roth is lambasted he is referred to as “the public defender” rather than Roth, an incompetent public defender. He is simply the public defender: an unprepared fresh fish ready to roll over for the district attorney.
Ironically, issues with public defenders generally tilt away from inexperience. For example, the lack of funding in Louisiana has left public defenders overworked, and clients in need of counsel have been turned away. It is a nationwide problem where public defenders are assigned too many cases because systems for court appointed counsel are severely underfunded.
Daredevil‘s portrayal of Roth is interesting where even the most disconcerting characters are afforded complex narratives that allow for moments of empathy. For example, Frank Castle, a man who has committed multiple homicides, is portrayed as a family man, and seeks retribution for his loved ones. Murdock even states that Castle, as the Punisher, was trying to do something noble, that Castle wanted justice, and, finally, that Castle, a man that hung victims on meat hooks, is a person. Roth, however, is uninspired and one-dimensional. Murdock does not humanize Roth as he did the Punisher, but upbraids Roth as being unable to effectively represent the Punisher.
Interestingly, the Netflix series is at odds with Daredevil‘s comic book heritage. Daredevil himself was once a public defender, as noted in one issue, “Matthew Murdock, one of the nation’s best known and most respected public defenders.” The writers for Netflix’s Daredevil seemed to have overlooked, if not scoffed at, this aspect of Daredevil. It has, of course, been quite a few years since Matt Murdock was written as a respected public defender. It has been much longer since a comic book was entirely dedicated the exploits of court appointed counsel.
In the 1950s there was a short-lived comic book titled Public Defender in Action. The comic book existed before the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Gideon v. Wainwright that held an indigent person accused of a crime has a right to an attorney. Richard Manning, the protagonist, was a public defender that spent much of his legal practice throwing punches whilst smoking a pipe. He also represented indigent clients accused of crimes. Although Manning qualifies his work, “I can’t condone crime,” he goes on to say, “But it’s my duty to see that you get a just trial–and I have all the facts!” Manning’s proclamation endorses both personal morality and a duty to protect an accused person’s rights. These qualities are not mutually exclusive in court appointed counsel.
Pat Masulli, The Accused, 1:8 Public Defender in Action (Charlton Comics Group March 1956).
Daredevil‘s portrayal of the public defender eschews the comic book history of the title character and presents an unpalatable, hollow, and apathetic characterization of a public defender. It is also a missed opportunity where the show fails to explore how a public defender’s values would closely align with Nelson and Murdocks’s understanding of justice. Daredevil explained to the Punisher in season two, episode three, that everyone deserves a chance, even those convicted of crimes. In season one, episode one, Murdock states that the firm Nelson and Murdock’s purpose is “to defend the innocent.” Nelson quickly points out, “And I believe the innocent includes everyone not yet convicted of a crime. You know, as the law states.”
The aforementioned remarks address a divisive issue, especially in discussions of public defenders: how can a good person represent people accused of bad things? Although the series struggles with this issue, Daredevil compellingly addressed it in season one, episode three. Murdock’s closing argument in that episode discusses “questions of morality, of right and wrong, good and evil.” He states
Sometimes the delineation between the two [good and evil] is a sharp line. Sometimes it’s a blur… and often it’s like pornography. You just know when you see it. A man is dead. I don’t mean to make light of that, but these questions… these questions are vital ones because they tether us to each other, to humanity. Not everyone feels this way. Not everyone sees the sharp line, only the blur. A man is dead, um… A man is dead. And my client, John Healy, took his life. This is not in dispute. It is a matter of record, of fact, and facts have no moral judgment. They merely state what is. Not what we think of them, not what we feel. They just are. What was in my client’s heart when he took Mr. Prohaszka’s life, whether he is a good man or something else entirely, is irrelevant. These questions of good and evil, as important as they are, have no place in a court of law. Only the facts matter. My client claims he acted in self-defense. Mr. Prohaszka’s associates have refused to make a statement regarding the incident. The only other witness, a frightened young woman, has stated that my client was pleasant and friendly and that she only saw the struggle with Mr. Prohaszka after it had started. Those are the facts. Based on these and these alone, the prosecution has failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that my client was not acting solely in self-defense. And those, ladies and gentleman of the jury, are the facts. My client, based purely on the sanctity of the law which we’ve all sworn an oath to uphold must be acquitted of these charges. Now, beyond that, beyond these walls, he may well face a judgment of his own making. But here in this courtroom the judgment is yours and yours alone.
Murdock’s closing argument focuses not on the moral questions related to representing Healy, but on questions of fact and law. He does not dismiss the purported moral dilemma, but acknowledges that it has no place in the courtroom. The sanctity of the law must be upheld, regardless of the moral judgments that could be made against the accused. It is not incongruous for a good person to represent people accused of doing bad things.
The viewpoint in Murdock’s closing is easily ascribed to Roth. Roth could be a zealous advocate that believes the accused deserves effective assistance of counsel. Additionally, the harsh realities of the New York public defense system could be explored. These aspects would make Roth a complex character where he is a zealous advocate, but he also struggles in an imperfect public defender system. These small adjustments to Roth’s character would provide the redeeming qualities afforded to even the villains in the series, and it would, to an extent, properly contextualize Nelson and Murdock’s concerns.
Unfortunately, in Daredevil the public defender is a throw away character. Within one episode Roth goes from being a punching bag for Nelson and Murdock and into a body bag when he is fired by Castle. The presumption Jessica Jones and Daredevil adamantly convey is that private counsel will better represent a client than court appointed counsel. Public defenders in the Marvel Universe either leave you in prison for life or on death row. Marvel created a character that heroes, villains, and audiences can all despise: the public pretender.