The Minnesota Profile

Michael Holland: The defense never rests

  • Article by: CURT BROWN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 12, 2013 - 2:03 PM

In today's swamped courts, public defender Michael Holland barely has time to take a breath between his cases.

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Michael Holland at work

Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

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Michael Holland charges through the jailhouse doorway, a teetering stack of 15 manila legal files under his right arm. He carries his lunch, a peanut-butter granola bar, in the other hand. It's 1:40 on a recent Thursday afternoon, and the Hennepin County public defender was due in arraignment court 10 minutes ago.

Holland spent the morning meeting new clients. A guard led them one by one from their cells to a shoebox-sized interview room, but Holland ran out of time after conferring with only 12 of the 15. They join the 50 others he already represents. Dozens more new cases will come his way next week.

Today's accused include a Coon Rapids man whose DNA might link him to a robbery, a 38-year-old man accused of weapons violations and a guy in custody for assaulting a man during a basketball game at Life Time Fitness.

"He turned himself in; he's quit the club," Holland tells Judge Tamara Garcia. "He's a father of two and a good dad. And, your honor, I play basketball myself and I haven't been in a game when some kind of fight or jawing didn't break out." The judge sets bail at $5,000. Holland shrugs. Five cases down, 10 to go.

Advocating for the poor in a swamped court system, Holland is not only juggling more cases than ever, but he's also trying to balance his sense of justice with the realities of budget cuts and a sour economy. He is one of a dwindling number of not quite 400 public defenders in Minnesota who speak for more than 85 percent of those charged with crimes.

With about 750 cases a year, they're handling nearly twice the number the American Bar Association suggests for each lawyer. Cuts last year eliminated about 50 public defenders, and proposed cuts this year threaten 50 more.

"Quite frankly, I don't know how they do it with these caseloads," said Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page. He has known Holland for 20 years, since Page was a University of Minnesota regent and Holland was the student representative on the university's board.

"The question is whether we're going to provide some semblance of justice to those who can't afford it," Page said. "There are those who say that you go to court and you get all the justice you can afford. Well, that's wrong. You should get all the justice you're entitled to, and it's people like Mike that ensure justice is done and that people's rights aren't simply overrun by a system, that itself, is overburdened."

Holland's black leather calendar book lays out the chaos of his life: double-booked hearings, jail interviews, two approaching murder trials, a twice-delayed rape trial, sentencings, guilty pleas -- not to mention ultrasound appointments for his second child, due in August.

"Looking at my calendar, this is as bad as it's been for me," he says. "Sometimes, I feel the weight of the world."

His stress is mirrored across the public defense system, especially outside the Twin Cities, where crime rates are lower but drives between county courthouses take longer.

"There's got to be a breaking point," Holland says. "The amount of poor people is growing, especially in an economy like this. My clients get the best out of me, but will I have to shortchange them and do a half-job on all my cases instead of a full job on less cases? Something's got to give."

But what? Not his clients, whose life stories have been punctuated with despair and hopelessness. Not his growing family. But Holland doesn't have the luxury of pondering. He's already sprinting down the linoleum halls of justice to his next case.

"This job is stressful because, if you care, you can't help but be emotional," he says. "It does take its toll on me and, more so, on my family."

A day in the (frenzied) life

An orange sunrise brightens a cold winter morning in northeast Minneapolis. It's not even 8 a.m., and Holland is already negotiating the first deal of the day.

His 2-year-old daughter, Lexi, isn't thrilled about either the grits or the vitamins being offered on her highchair tray. She's even less thrilled about the van ride to day care. But an offer to drag Mommy's purse through the snow seals the deal. She agrees to put on her coat.

Holland lives in a 99-year-old house with vintage chandeliers and original woodwork. He's married to Kelly Madden, another of the more than 100 public defenders in Hennepin County. Today is their fifth wedding anniversary; Kelly is pregnant and carries a swelling caseload as well.

The two carpool to work, criss-cross in the courthouse and talk about cases late at night. When one of them is in trial, something the couple call Trial Trump kicks in, meaning the other one cooks, cleans, launders, tends to Lexi and surrenders the TV remote. Being in the same line of work helps quite a bit, Holland says.

"It's huge to have a spouse like Kelly, who gets it and understands," he says. "If not, your wife would be saying: 'Why do you care more about this murderer than me?'"

Six-foot and slender with a close-cropped beard, Holland, 42, doesn't start looking like a lawyer until he arrives in his office 12 floors up and a few skyways from the Hennepin County Government Center.

He leaves home wearing jeans and a sweatshirt but picks out a suit from his cache in an office closet and knots his tie while looking in a mirror on the door. It's his way of trying to keep work at work -- a valiant effort for a guy who analyzes trial strategy at midnight in bed with his wife.

This morning's court appearances include a pregnant woman pleading guilty to drunken driving and a 31-year-old guy accused of criminal property damage for painting graffiti along a road. First, though, there's Nanette.

She's a 41-year-old prostitute with a host of mental health and chemical dependency demons. She's in custody after offering her services to undercover cops three times within 24 days. All told, she faces six gross misdemeanors.

Her fate isn't being decided in open court. Back in Judge Garcia's chambers, Holland has orchestrated a meeting with the judge, a representative from the Women's Recovery Center, the city prosecutor and other advisers. The city, responding to complaints from the Stevens Square neighborhood, wants Nanette to serve a couple years in jail.

Holland rolls the focus from "do the crime, do the time" punishment toward rehabilitation. He pushes for a stay of her sentence and three months at the recovery center.

"If she fails, she'll prostitute herself again and use drugs, but it's not like she's wielding a gun around," Holland says. "If we succeed, we have a person who's being a productive member of society. Let's give this a shot."

Holland seldom finds innocent clients falsely charged. Usually, he works to cushion the hit his people will absorb for their wrongdoings. Nanette's case is a little victory for a lawyer who seldom wins. The judge and prosecutor go along with the deal.

As the deputies lead Nanette back to jail to await transfer to the recovery center, she pauses, takes a step back and extends her hand. "Michael, thanks. Thanks a lot."

Appreciative clients are as rare as down time for Holland. In his office, he has a sketch of a bison skull and feathers, with the Lakota word for thanks, "Wopila," drawn in jail by a client doing time for his involvement in a murder case.

Where is the 'Public Pretender?'

Most, though, are like his client Amiel, whose alleged graffiti work cost $597 to clean up. He has been stalking the hall all morning, telling everyone that he has been waiting three hours for his "Public Pretender."

Holland sits him on a bench and dispels Amiel's notion that public defenders have quotas. He explains that the county takes graffiti seriously and wants him to do a month in jail and two years' probation. "We can do at least as well going to trial, we've got nothing to lose," Holland tells him.

"OK, then let's take a trial," Amiel says. "Sorry."

"You don't have to apologize, especially to me," Holland says, spinning back into court.

Out in the hall, Amiel is no longer angry. "He's blunt, to the point and straightforward and I appreciate that style," Amiel says. "I didn't think this was as serious as it's turning out to be."

Holland sets Amiel's trial for June and scoots two flights down the stairs just before noon: "I was supposed to be in the other courtroom at 10:30. I have five more cases waiting."

Instilling justice early

He grew up in suburban Milwaukee. His father, Bill, drove a Jay's potato chips truck through the city's blighted core. Others who delivered along that route got robbed. Not Bill Holland.

He was a neighborhood icon known as the Jay's Man, giving kids free bags of damaged chips and helping mom-and-pop merchants do their books and inventory on weekends. He always brought Mike and his older brother along on his community service trips.

Myra Holland, his mother, taught third grade with an iron fist in inner-city Milwaukee. Although his parents succeeded in moving the family out of the ghetto, Holland says they hammered home the importance of not judging those less fortunate.

"It sounds hokey," he says, "but my view of public defense starts with my parents instilling in me the importance of giving back to the community."

Two experiences 20 years ago -- a rained-out concert and a crummy landlord -- nudged him down the path toward public defense. One summer during college, Holland was back in Milwaukee with his pals and 30,000 others waiting for an INXS concert. When a deluge canceled the show, the mob got ugly, and Holland, "all GQ-ed up" in white slacks, got caught between the police line and the bottle-throwing crowd.

"I was chanting, 'Hell no, we won't go,' like everyone, but for some reason, Summerfest officials thought I was the leader."

'Look at the tough guy with the stick'

One thing led to another, and Holland tripped over a curb and crawled out of the chaos to the bus that would take him home. Safely on board, he hollered out the window at a cop slapping a billy club into his palm: "Look at the tough guy with the stick!"

Police halted the bus, dragged him out, kneed him in the stomach, tossed him into a paddy wagon and charged him with attempting to incite a riot. His time in jail provided a firsthand glimpse of what happens when you get caught up in the criminal justice system.

His family agreed to drop an excessive force lawsuit against the police in exchange for dismissing the riot charges. Holland has not forgotten the moment.

"I tell my clients that I've been where you are, to a certain degree," he says. "I know what it's like, a little bit."

A few years later at the University of Minnesota, Holland served as a house manager for eight guys renting a large Mississippi River Road house from a negligent landlord. When the lack of heat caused a mop to freeze in its bucket and faulty wiring zapped a house mate turning on a light, Holland put the rent money in escrow and led his house mates to court.

Their lawyer didn't show up, so Holland stepped up and told Judge Charles Porter, repeatedly, what the law says about tenant rights. Porter interrupted Holland's umpteenth "But the law says," called him up to the bench and politely said: "I am the law, and you'll give me the money or move out."

They moved out and Holland moved toward the U of M Law School and a clerk job with Hennepin County District Judge Franklin Knoll.

"He'd ride his motorcycle out to my house on weekends," said Knoll, now retired. "I tried to get mad at him once in a while for being late with a memorandum, but it was just the damnedest thing. I couldn't get mad at him."

Three years after becoming an assistant public defender in 1996, Holland tried private practice. He didn't like billing clients or the business administration, so after a year he returned to serving the poor.

"When I go to court, I'm the only other one looking out for that client and that's a lot of pressure," he says. "But public defenders are eternal optimists, like Don Quixote. We march up the hill every day and we attack this windmill that's not going to move. Occasionally, we do move it."

Unearthing clients' stories

Holland takes pride in working with the office's younger lawyers -- some of whose jobs are in jeopardy as cutbacks increase. One of those up-and-comers, Jane Imholte, served as Holland's co-counsel defending Dontaro Riddley in a double homicide last year. Imholte recalls one night when she and Holland went to see Riddley in jail.

"Mike didn't bring up strategy, he just asked our client to tell us his life story," she said. "For two hours, we listened. You don't have to be Mother Teresa, but this work depends on the kind of integrity that Mike affords his clients."

Another defendant, Brandon Johnson, was convicted in 2005 of killing his girlfriend, wounding her daughter and niece and shooting at a baby.

"Most people in society would say: 'Throw away the key, this guy is horrible,'" Holland says. "My friends at cocktail parties ask how I can defend a guy like that. But over the course of representing him, I discovered that Brandon is one of the most gentle, caring and compassionate people I know. Did he do something heinous? The trial transcript would say he did. But I get to see another side of him."

In both cases, Holland heard and relayed to jurors stories of men whose lives were pocked by poverty and miserable circumstances. Then they snapped. But their acts, Holland insists, don't define who they are. When they regained their equilibrium, he says, their more gentle natures returned.

Double-booked and cracking

Back in arraignment court, Holland is almost done churning through appearances of his 15 newest clients. As the calendar winds down, prosecutor Judith Cole opposes one of his minor scheduling requests. She argues that Holland is already overbooked with multiple hearings and a rape trial that is to start that day.

"We'll have five county attorneys sitting around waiting for Mr. Holland," she says.

Judge Garcia sets the hearing for 1:30 p.m. after learning that Holland's other case scheduled for the same time is in a nearby courtroom. "We've got to fit this in and it's only one floor apart," the judge says. "So let's compromise."

Before Holland hustles out of court, he jots the latest hearings in his chock-full calendar and cringes as he looks ahead to a rape trial this month, two murder trials in April and dozens of misdemeanor arraignments that will push his caseload to 100 active files.

"We have a hearing coming up on what evidence gets in on the murder trial," he says. "When am I going to work on that? I don't know."

Holland's easy-going style masks his stress. And the pressure he feels is far from unique -- there are signs the whole system is cracking.

Ramsey County District Judge Robert Awsumb recently postponed a murder trial because the public defender needed more time. "The canary died in the coal mine a long time ago," Awsumb said. "People who work in the courthouse have been seeing the impact of the cuts to the public defender budgets, but now it's getting really serious."

The state Court of Appeals threw out an assault conviction last month because 30 delays in the case violated the defendant's right to a speedy trial.

Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Eric Magnuson has formed a coalition of prosecutors, sheriffs and police chiefs who have been touring the state to talk about the critical need of public defender funding. After all, victims, police, judges, probation officers and prosecutors all want timely justice and they depend on public defenders to help get it.

Closing statement

It's now 4 p.m. on a Friday, time for Holland's strategy session with a younger public defender to plan their upcoming cold-case murder defense. Their meeting was scheduled for three hours ago.

"Sorry," he tells her. "It's been one of those days."

He wishes he had more time to pour into the trial preparation. But another week has buzzed by. Most downtown Minneapolis workers have gone home. His fellow public defenders say good night and blink out their office lights.

Holland sifts through his brimming e-mail in-box, cleans through voice mails from fretting clients and family members. He unfastens his necktie, hangs up his suit jacket, exhales deeply and glances out his office window. A cloud of steam pours out of a nearby building, obscuring his view.

Curt Brown • 612-673-4767

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