From the President: First Responders

In addition to fire, medical and rescue personnel, the term "first responders" should apply to criminal defense attorneys. The danger defense attorneys face comes from the anger and resentment of the public at large.

Access to The Champion archive is one of many exclusive member benefits. It’s normally restricted to just NACDL members. However, this content, and others like it, is available to everyone in order to educate the public on why criminal justice reform is a necessity.

The stunned silence that follows unspeakable horror. The incomprehension and shock. These are the human reactions that follow a bombing, the slaughter of children, and other deliberate acts of inhumane cruelty. After that first moment most will flee, others will stand and watch. A very few will run toward the danger, driven by an impulse to save and protect. They will act without hesitation. They will act with no consideration of race or nationality. Whether because it is their job, their duty, or their character, they will put themselves at risk and they are the heroes we thank for service. These are the people we call “first responders,” a term that includes police, EMTs, fire, and other rescue personnel.

The term should also apply to the criminal defense attorney who assumes immediate responsibility for the high-profile accused. Following the Boston Marathon bombings and the Aurora theater shootings, criminal defense attorneys stepped forward instantly and with no regard for what the representation would mean to them, their families, or their careers. The danger they faced was not that of a burning building; it was the anger and resentment of the public at large.

It is not just the high-profile cases to which our colleagues respond. They are the first to stand up every day in small lonely courtrooms across the country to aid and speak for the seemingly indefensible — the accused murderers, rapists, and child abusers. The crimes may not be factually complex, but those cases present challenging issues of law, mental health, and cultural divide.

They also exact an unimaginable toll. Unlike rescue, fire, or medical responders, defense responders face hatred, scorn, and threats. Political leaders compare “innocent victims” to their own (rhetorical) children. Their work is dissected and criticized on cable TV. Yet defense responders accept not only those cases and the personal sacrifice they require, they accept capital cases with facts so awful the public decries a death penalty as too merciful and quick. This is where responders might suffer the most, for the life they try to save is not a life threatened by calamity, disease, nature, or combatant. It is a life that their own country is trying to take. No acclaim rewards their success; no relief from a loss restores their soul. The anguish of effort haunts them forever.

Our defense responders are our heroes, and they deserve from us the appreciation and praise they receive from no one else.

This year I have chosen to appreciate and praise one of our first responders as the recipient of the Heeney Award. This year’s recipient fulfills the criteria of the award independently of being a public defender, but that she is the first state public defender to ever receive the award is especially meaningful during this 50th anniversary of Gideon.

The Robert C. Heeney Memorial Award is NACDL’s most prestigious award. It is given annually to the criminal defense attorney who best exemplifies the goals and values of the association, and who represents the ideal of a real lawyer within our profession. This year’s recipient exemplifies those traits and more. She is a public defender and a first responder in every sense of the term.

Apart from her public defender duties and her substantial work for NACDL, she has a commitment to public and pro bono service that makes her extraordinary. I am honored to present the Robert C. Heeney Award to Bonnie Hoffman for her commitment to NACDL and to the legal profession through her work to ensure justice and due process for all.

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Bonnie has been an active member of NACDL, a director on our board, and a co-chair of the Indigent Defense Committee for many years. As part of the 50th anniversary of Gideon, she suggested and co-authored a series of columns profiling public defenders from around the country. She volunteered to help Sarah Rackley co-chair the Midwinter Meeting.

A deputy public defender for Loudon County, Va., Bonnie’s dedication and demeanor are routinely praised by colleagues and judges. She treats each client with dignity and respect. Despite the challenges of sometimes difficult clients and limited resources, Bonnie always represents her clients with well-prepared and zealous advocacy. Her commitment motivated a former client to publish a letter to the editor in The Washington Post in 2004 following an editorial series, “Broken Justice,” that discussed the public defender system. The former client wrote that throughout her representation, Bonnie “fought passionately on my behalf in the courtroom with the rare combination of tenacity and decorum.” In what members of our profession will understand as a true testament to her advocacy skills, prosecutors groan when they hear she is handling a case.

To further our profession, Bonnie serves as a mentor and advisor, training speaker, and teacher for attorneys and legal interns. She serves on the Juvenile Justice Collaborative, the governing body of the Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative (JDAI) program in her county, and she chairs the JDAI Disproportionate Minority Contact Subcommittee. These programs involve the collaboration between the state, defense, judiciary, law enforcement, juvenile probation services, public schools, mental health, social services, parks and recreation, and the county government to provide better services to youth and their families as an alternative to detention. She also participates in the Law Camp sponsored by the Loudon County Bar Association to mentor rising high school seniors at a week-long camp that combines fun events with a mock trial prep of a case.

As a community leader, Bonnie co-founded and co-chairs her county’s chapter of the Beat the Odds Scholarship Program that recognizes youth who have overcome significant life obstacles from homelessness to physical and sexual abuse to involvement in the juvenile justice system, and who are graduating from high school and going on to post-secondary education. Without Bonnie’s leadership and dedication, these students would not have the financial assistance to further their education and training.

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In honor of a fallen team member, Bonnie and her baseball team started the Give 10 for 10 charity ( The most recent project for the charity was to collect books and supplies for New Jersey and New York following Hurricane Sandy. The initial goal was 1,000 books — enough to provide four books to every child in the selected school. The donation drive produced closer to 5,000 books — enough to allow the children to take books without restriction and to donate to a library for other children who could not attend the event. Additional supplies were donated to families in need in Staten Island and Breezy Point in the Rockaways. As Bonnie said, the trip to New Jersey reminded everyone of how much we need to invest in our future, and the trip to New York reminded everyone how much still remains to be invested in our present.

Bonnie often says, “It’s not about how much you have, it’s about what you do with it.” Bonnie Hoffman, you have done tremendous work, and you fight a tireless fight. For those reasons and more, I proudly give you NACDL’s highest award for your fearless, compassionate, and faithful devotion to your clients, the legal profession, and the community.

Thank you.

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