History of the Office
2012 - 2014
Liz Neeley contracted with Lancaster County to assist in the implementation of the recommendations from the 2011 Assigned Counsel Study. Major recommendations included legislation redefining when appointed counsel was mandated in certain juvenile cases and the development and implementation of a billing software system for assigned counsel to allow easier , more efficient review and payment of bills and to provide data for better planning by the courts.
In May of 2012, the following 8 employees of the Public Defender's Office were honored by Lancaster County for their years of service:
Monica Ross-Williams (35 years)
Scott Helvie (30 years)
Paul Cooney (15 years)
Shawn Elliott (15 years)
Jed Rojewski (15 years)
Joe Renteria (15 years)
Steve Schultz (10 years)
Marge Shepard (10 years)
Monica Ross-Williams was honored for her 35 years of service to the office. Monica, who is originally from Scottsbluff, Nebraska, started in the office as a legal secretary, was eventually promoted to paralegal and has been the Administrative Services Officer for the past 12 years.
Scott Helvie was honored for his 30 years of service to the office. Scott, who is originally from the Chicago area, served a term of office as the Public Defender for Lincoln County in North Platte, Nebraska, before joining our office as an attorney. He is currently Chief Deputy Public Defender.
Paul Cooney was honored for his 15 years of service to the office. Paul, who is originally from Boston, MA, was a law clerk with the office and practiced with the Hall County Public Defender in Grand Island, Nebraska before joining our staff as a staff attorney. He has worked in every docket in the office.
Shawn Elliott was also honored for 15 years of service. He is originally from Kearney, Nebraska, and worked in private practice before joining our office. He is currently a Deputy Public Defender in the felony division.
Jed Rojewski was honored for his 15 years of service to the office as a paralegal. Jed and his family live in Seward.
Joe Renteria was honored for his 15 years of service to the office as our only investigator. He is originally from western Nebraska.
Steve Schultz was honored for 10 years of service to the office as a paralegal. Steve is a graduate of the University of Nebraska at Kearney and is originally from Curtis, Nebraska.
Marge Shepard was honored for 10 years of service to the office as a Client Services Associate. Marge is originally from Stratton.
Year Two of Federal Grant Helps With Training
The office benefitted throughout the year from two different grants that originated with the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Assistance and was awarded to our office by the Nebraska Crime Commission. In one of the grants, the Lancaster County Public Defender's Office partnered with the Nebraska State Bar Association's Minority Justice Committee, and Professor Kevin Ruser of the UNL College of Law to provide statewide training on the immigration consequences of criminal convictions. Over 500 attorneys were provided with the training in state and the grant also provided funds to send 6 county public defenders to national immigration training in Denver, Colorado. In addition, the grant provided a number of county public defender offices with Professor Ruser's Manual on Immigration Law for criminal defense attorneys. The other grant provided the office with funds to upgrade the office's case management system, allowed us to purchase 7 additional mini laptop computers for attorneys to take to court and update their case files, as well as the ability to send all of the attorneys in the office to national premier training programs for criminal defense attorneys.
At the end of the 2012, Sarah Newell, a former law clerk with the office and an attorney in our felony division resigned to take a position with the Nebraska Public Advocacy Commission. Valerie McHargue moved from the misdemeanor division to take over Sarah's cases in the felony division. Matt Meyerle, another former law clerk with the office was hired as a new attorney and began work in the Juvenile Division.
Randy Goyette, an attorney with the Baylor Evnen law Firm, served as Chair of the Lancaster County Indigent Defense Advisory Committee since 1999. In May, he elected not to request reappointment to the committee. The advisory committee was established in 1995 by the Lancaster County Board of Commissioners to provide advice and assistance to the County Board and The Lancaster County Public Defender on issues relating to indigent defense. Members of the committee are nominated by the Board of Trustees of the Lincoln Bar Association and appointed by the Lancaster County Board of Commissioners. Dallas Jones of the Baylor Evnen firm was selected to replace Randy Goyette.
2013 saw major turnover in the office both with support staff positions and attorney positions. In February, Susan Tast, a long time Deputy with the office, retired. Susan was originally a Law Clerk with the office and was hired as an attorney when she was working for Student Legal Services at the University of Nebraska Lincoln. A reception was held in the office for Susan and was attended by the entire office staff as well as judges, prosecutors and court staff. Chelsie Goetz was hired to replace Susan and was assigned to the Juvenile Division. Chelsie is from Hartington, Nebraska. In the fall of 2013, Alison Hill resigned as a Client Service Associate in order to start up her own business. Marge Shepard, a long time Client Service Associate retired to spend more time with her family.
2013 also saw the implementation of a long overdue change in the salary plan for attorneys in both the County Attorney's Office and the Public Defender's Office. Working with the Personnel Director, Joe Kelly and Dennis Keefe, agreed to an 8 step plan for Attorney I positions and a flexible plan to award those attorneys who have been designated as Attorney II.
Elizabeth Elliott, one of the Deputies in the office, produced an educational program for attorneys in the office and from the larger legal community using experts from the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services who provided information on what services the Department provided to inmates and the process of accessing those services.
In late September of 2013, Lancaster County's new jail opened. This change has had significant impact on the Lancaster County Public Defender's Office. Previously, attorneys and other staff could visit clients in the jail by just crossing the street from their offices, or check in with clients in between court hearings. With the new jail, trips require an 11 mile round-trip drive and much pre planning. Video visitation software has been provided to the office and may make some client contacts easier but in person visits will still be necessary.
On October 1, 2013, new juvenile legislation took effect that will have a major impact on the office far into the future. LB 561 essentially removed the state Department of Health and Human Services and the Office of Juvenile Services from juvenile court cases involving delinquency and status offenses and replaces them with state probation. As a result, public defender cases will stay open longer, even after a child is sentenced to one of the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Centers, because there will always be supervision and review by the juvenile court. Because of this legislation, the County Attorneys Office has stopped filing separate cases when new offenses are committed and our office has responded by keeping track of the client now in one case. This will impact the validity of our juvenile caseload numbers and will affect the amount of time our cases are open. One unexpected result of this is that our attorneys are spending less time in their office because they have to spend considerably more time in the juvenile court reading pre disposition reports because the judges refuse to allow copies to be made. Less time in the office usually translates into less time to talk to clients.
In October, Dennis Keefe was invited to the inaugural meeting of the National Association For Public Defense in Dayton, Ohio. The NAPD will be a national public defender organization that will promote best practices and strive towards improving the delivery of services to clients, improving the administration of justice, and supporting the development and reform of public defense systems.
Juvenile Re-entry Grant
In February of 2014, the Public Defender's Office was added as a participant in the last year of a three year grant focusing on youth who were re-entering their communities following stays at the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Centers, in Kearney and Geneva. Working with a team to support the youth's successful re-entry, a public defender attorney visits each youth at the commitment facilities each month, as well as with The Family Team in person and by conference call to further planning efforts. The public defender attorney also represents and advocates for the plan at the review hearing and then follows the youth for 60 days in the community. The project was modeled after a similar program in San Francisco that significantly reduced recidivism rates for the youth served in that community.
An experienced attorney, Teresa Nutzman was hired as a part time employee of the office to run the program. Ms. Nutzman not only had experience representing youth in various courts in Nebraska, she had also served as Administrator for the Office of Juvenile Services for the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.
County Service Awards
On May 20, 2014, 3 members of the Public Defender's Office were honored for their years of service to the County. Joe Nigro and Lori Gokie were honored for 30 years of service, and Christopher "Spike" Eickholt was honored for 10 years of service.
In August of 2013, Dennis Keefe announced to his staff that he was not running for Public Defender after 36 years of service. He also announced his support for Joe Nigro, a 30 year Deputy in the office, who later ran and won election in November of 2014 as Lancaster County's 3rd Public Defender.
Joe Nigro is a lifelong Nebraskan. He graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a B.A. in 1980 and a J.D. in 1983. Joe has been married to Shari for 29 years and they have three grown children: Margaret (26), Betsy (24), and Nick(22).
Other Comings and Goings
In 2014, the office hired a second investigator, a new position approved by the Board of Commissioners in the 2013-2014 budget process. Nate Kaiser, an officer with the Lincoln Police Department, was hired to assist with investigations.
Early in the year, Elizabeth Elliott, one of our felony attorneys, announced she was leaving the office to take a position with the State of Nebraska. The office hired Abbi Romshek, a Nebraska native who was then working in the public defender's office in Phoenix, Arizona, to replace her. Abbi is a former law clerk for our office.
In May, Valerie McHargue, another of our felony attorneys, announced she was leaving the office and moving to Florida with her family. Amanda Baskin, a former office intern was hired to replace her. In June, George Dungan, a Lincoln native and a graduate of American University Law School, was hired to fill the additional attorney position that the Board of Commissioners had approved in January. And in December, Sarah Safarik, a former law clerk, joined the office as an attorney in the juvenile division to replace the position that was to be vacated when Dennis Keefe's term of office ended on January 7, 2015. Also, in December, Brittani Lewit, an attorney with Nebraska Legal Aid, and a former law clerk with the Public Defender's Office, joined the office to fill a new attorney position that the Board of Commissioners approved in the 2014-2015 budget process ending in August of 2014.