Assistant Public Defender David A. Case has spent most of the past decade representing the accused and bulldogging prosecutors in Bethel’s courtrooms. Now, after nine years of service, he’s reluctantly leaving the region for good.
In 2009, David Case was a tax lawyer in Washington D.C. looking for a challenge. "I wanted to actually work with real clients and individuals on the ground," he said.
So Case took a job in Bethel. Over the past decade he's tried dozens of cases, one of which recently made it all the way to the Alaska Supreme Court; he juggles between 50 and 60 clients at a time. Managing a Public Defender’s workload was challenging at first, and living in Bethel took some adjusting. "I had to get used to the isolation," Case said. "Most people know that I'm a vegetarian, and I don't hunt and I don't fish. So I had to get used to ordering everything off Amazon."
Fortunately, Bethel’s Public Defender’s Office was supportive. A lot of professionals move to Bethel, punch their ticket, and leave, says Case, but the Public Defender’s Office doesn’t suffer from high turnover rates. "It's been blessed with strong leadership for many years, historically," he said. "And that's meant that people have been encouraged to aggressively investigate and defend cases, not take shortcuts, and also be connected to the community."
A tireless advocate for his clients, Case’s work gives him an unvarnished view of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta’s criminal justice system. In an under-resourced region the size of West Virginia, meeting with clients can be tough. "I wish I had some sort of teleportation device," joked Case.
When a crime is committed in a village, Case says, the initial investigations can run into problems. Village Police Officers and Tribal Police Officers are famously underpaid and overworked, though Case says that he’s constantly impressed with how well they navigate those challenges. "When I first looked into this, I could not believe it that you have people who are just out of high school, with a minimum of training, being put into what amounts to active shooter situations," he said. "I don't think I would ever want to do that job."
That said, untrained VPOs and TPOs can make mistakes. Illegal searches are an issue nationwide, Case says, but he’s worked cases where local law enforcement was unaware that they had searched his client illegally. And when he first started working in the Y-K Delta in 2009, he represented several clients who’d been mistakenly charged.
"People were getting charged with fairly serious types of assault that could send them to jail for a year, simply by saying not very nice things to their family members," Case explained. "Some people served jail time for this. Then the prosecutor would say, 'well, that's just not a crime,' and it would be dismissed.
"The reason why those things would get charged," he added, "was just because of a lack of training among some of the local law enforcement."
Alaska State Toopers are called in to further investigate major crimes, but Case says that those investigations must contend with the area’s brutal weather. "Whether or not you have a pilot's license makes it very difficult to aggressively investigate cases," he said. "Very often, the investigation is centered around when they can get in and when they can get out. And that means that, you know, they might not do as much investigation as they'd like."
Bethel’s criminal justice system also struggles to find enough Yup’ik translators, and many defendants in Bethel’s court system aren’t represented during their initial court appearances. Case says that means some people end up pleading guilty to charges they didn’t fully understand.
Case has made the decision to transfer to Kenai’s Public Defender’s Office to be closer to his family, but he says that he’ll be sorry to leave the Y-K Delta. He built a strong group of friends here; he met his wife here. People who stay in Bethel are devoted to the community, and Case says that extends to many of Bethel’s current and incoming judges. Superior Court Judge Nathaniel Peters and incoming District Court Judge Will Montgomery are both former Bethel defense attorneys, and both judges plan to raise their families here.
"It's very likely that we're going to have a judiciary that is definitely connected to our community," he said. "We've had judges for a long time who would just go home to Anchorage on the weekends."
Case encouraged Y-K Delta teenagers and young adults to consider going into criminal defense work themselves. It’s hard work, he says, but it’s also rewarding.