A 15-year-old girl repeatedly punched her Ramsey County public defender in the head and chest in a courthouse conference room last week, sending the attorney to the hospital with a concussion, authorities said.
The July 13 incident at the Ramsey County Juvenile and Family Justice Center in downtown St. Paul, which resulted in the girl being charged with one count of felony third-degree assault, underscores the risks defense attorneys often face.
“We, as public defenders, we’re often in confined quarters alone with a client who sometimes is disappointed with the way things are going, or feels a sense of hopelessness,” said Ramsey County Chief Public Defender Pat Kittridge. “There are some inherent dangers with the job.”
Kittridge declined to name the attorney for fear it would identify the juvenile, whose identity is protected under state law, but said she was hospitalized for two days.
“She’s doing well now,” he said.
It’s unclear when she will return to work.
The attorney, 62, and the girl were meeting in a conference room when the assault occurred. State Public Defender Bill Ward said that the girl’s father and an interpreter were in the room at one point. It’s unclear when they left the room, and whether they witnessed any portion of the attack.
St. Paul police spokesman Sgt. Paul Paulos said the girl stood up, slapped the attorney three times in the head, left the room, returned and punched the attorney about 10 times in the head and chest.
Ramsey County sheriff’s deputies arrested the girl, who was in court for two cases — with fourth- and fifth-degree assault charges.
Kittridge and Ward said it’s common — and preferable — for attorneys to meet privately with clients for confidentiality reasons.
Attorneys are aware of the risks, Ward said, and receive annual training that includes tips on how to defuse escalating situations. (The training is voluntary, but Ward said last year’s session was attended by about 85 to 90 percent of the state public defenders staff.)
“We’re not teaching taekwondo,” Ward said. “There’s always a concern that something out of the ordinary will happen. Every lawyer I know has had that happen. You stand your ground and talk quietly and hope for the best, and the vast majority of the time, that’s what happens.”
Assaults on public defenders aren’t unheard of. A few years ago, Ward said, a Hennepin County public defender was meeting with a client in the county jail when the client began throwing punches. The attorney used his laptop to deflect the blows.
Years earlier, a client punched and broke another Hennepin County public defender’s cheekbone.
Kittridge said he couldn’t recall another attack in Ramsey County in his 30 years there.
Ward said that although attorneys are trained to use their voices to prevent violence, they should use other options to protect themselves when necessary.
“There’s no way that people shouldn’t respond with force if they’re being harmed,” Ward said. “It really is a scary situation.”