Spotlight On: Brett DeGroff

Please tell us something about your background, and about your time at SADO.
I came to SADO after clerking for Justice Mary Beth Kelly on the Michigan Supreme Court. Before law school, I worked as a journalist at the Ann Arbor News and MLive.

Working at SADO is both challenging and rewarding, probably for the same reasons anyone’s criminal practice is. Clients depend on us to help them out of maybe the worst situation they have ever been in, in their entire life. Statistically we know that achieving relief won’t happen for many of our clients. That doesn’t seem to get any easier. But, the flip side of the coin is that so many clients seem like they have never had anyone fight for them, and not just in the criminal context. So, when we stand up for them, even when the issues are not great, often the client is unbelievably appreciative. That’s a great feeling.

You have recently become part of the Appellate Investigation Project.  Please tell us about it: what is it, and what can it do?

So many cases are full of problems where the record is incomplete or where there simply is no record regarding important issues. At SADO, we’re fortunate to have investigation resources to explore and develop these issues, and a lot of the relief we achieve for our clients results from those resources and efforts. The Appellate Investigation Project (AIP) is about making those resources available to Michigan Appellate Assigned Counsel System (MAACS) roster attorneys.

As the AIP’s Principal Attorney, I review requests from roster attorneys for investigative services. With each request, I try to think about both what the AIP can do to help in the way the roster attorney asks, and also if there is any other way we might be able to help. That can be anything from providing an investigator to knock on doors, to second-chairing an evidentiary hearing, to helping with a FOIA, simply talking through the case, or anything else that might be helpful. If you need help, we want to find a way to give it to you. 

MAACS roster attorneys who want to request assistance or learn more about the AIP should visit

What are some recurring issues or problems that you see in criminal defense?

One big problem is attorneys struggling to keep up with technological advances. This is true in several contexts.

Prosecutors have a range of expert and investigative resources at their disposal. Defense attorneys normally don’t. This leaves them grappling with finding resources to deal with cell phone tracking data, complicated medical testimony, and more. And that is just to respond to the prosecution’s case. To present their own case, an attorney of an indigent defendant first has to make a showing to the court to even get funds to consult the expert they need. But if the attorney is unfamiliar with how a particular expert can help them, they may be unprepared to approach the court for funds or even unaware they should do so.

What are some key points for trial counsel to keep in mind when representing an accused?

The most generally applicable rule I apply in my own cases is to speak with the client as soon as possible and listen to what they have to say. So often, the biggest problems in the case are not on the record. The only chance to identify these issues is to talk with the client and explore the concerns they raise. Getting this done as early in the process as possible allows the maximum amount of time for investigation.

Do you have advice for attorneys new to the practice of criminal defense?

Remember that it’s not your case; it’s the client’s case. We all talk about “our cases.” Prosecutors, judges, and defense attorneys all do it. We invest a lot of time and energy into them, and it’s natural to feel like we have a stake in them, and we do. But of course not as much as the client does. There are limits to deferring to the client, of course. And the client deserves the benefit of your knowledge and advice to help him or her avoid a choice you would counsel against. But in the end, once you have done all of that, you should respect their decisions.

by Neil Leithauser
Associate Editor