Spotlight On: Angela B. Peterson

Please tell us something about your background and how you became involved in criminal defense.

Many years working in the music industry launched my entertainment practice. Soon a few clients introduced me to misdemeanor court rooms, and my affection for criminal defense was discovered. I began taking house counsel assignments in local district courts, and eventually appointments in Third Circuit Court. My mentors encouraged me to join the defender office to hone my trial skills. About a hundred trials later….

You are an attorney administrator with the Office of Public Defense Services in Wayne County.  Please tell us about that service.

The Program provides consultation and assistance to attorneys to secure the services of defense investigators and experts in felony cases. I make myself available to strategize with attorneys of indigent clients and make resources available to support development of the defense team.

Please tell us about one of your most interesting cases.  What were the issues in the case and the theories of the parties?  Were experts involved in the case?

One of my most memorable clients was charged with armed robbery. The incident occurred at night at an ATM. The challenges: a short, low-angle shot video; an assailant who was constantly looking around and away from the camera; an arrest months later leaving my client unable to establish an alibi; and a complainant who was 120% sure my client was the person who robbed him. We conducted independent investigation, consulted with a forensic anthropologist, but ultimately it was the work of IT and video specialists that led to a 6-minute jury deliberation and acquittal.

How might our system be improved?

There are inherent shortcomings in criminal justice. It is a vocation for those with power, education, and influence. Those of meager or no means have often received less time, attention, and quality of service. It is an industry or institution operated by human beings and subject to human imperfection. Do we do what is expected, or only what is inspected?  

The current national focus on reform is encouraging a new vision for public defense. The image of the public defender is under reconstruction. Training, oversight, and resources are vital, but the system will only improve if we do.

Do you have any advice for criminal defense practitioners, especially for those new to criminal defense?

Newer defenders should seek mentors, watch others, ask questions, find your voice.

Always be overprepared. Know your case much better than the prosecutor does. Take the time to understand complex subject matter. Start your investigation while the facts are fresh. While investigators and experts are often essential, your client also has helpful information. No, all of it might not be favorable, but then you’ll know where NOT to step. And if knowing those things will challenge your ability to zealously defend your client, rethink criminal defense.

Website for the Office of Public Defense Services:

by Neil Leithauser
Associate Editor