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Mr. Tumelty represented Helena Hendricks, who was charged with first degree murder in Atlantic County Superior Court. The defendant faced a number of additional charges, including armed robbery, conspiracy and possession of a handgun for an unlawful purpose. At the conclusion of a jury trial that lasted three weeks, the defendant was found "not guilty" of all charges.

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Studies Show Hiring a Private Criminal Defense Attorney May Be Worth the Investment

As the shock of an arrest fades, thoughts often turn to finding a criminal defense lawyer. Beyond the choice of an individual attorney or firm, for those that qualify for a public defender, there may be the choice between accepting a public defender or court-appointed attorney and hiring a private criminal defense lawyer. But, is there really a difference in quality that needs to be considered when making this decision? According to two studies, there is.

According to Thomas Cohen at the Bureau of Justice Statistics, people who hire a private criminal defense attorney or receive a public defender receive better outcomes, in both adjudication and sentencing, than people who receive a court-appointed attorney.

Bureau of Justice Statistics’ analysis shows that in the 75 most populous counties in the United States, the conviction rate for people who hire private criminal defense attorneys or have a public defender is less than those who have a court-appointed attorney (73 and 72 percent for the former compared to 78 percent for the latter). Of those convicted, almost half – 46 percent – of those with court-appointed attorneys received prison terms, while only a third of those with private counsel (29 percent) and public defenders (32 percent) received prison sentences.

So, with private counsel and public defenders seemingly achieving better outcomes for defendants, is there a difference between private criminal defense attorneys and public defenders? A second study, reported in the New York Times, indicates that there may be.

In a study that looked at 2002 data from 5,000 felony cases in Denver, Colorado, it was found that people with a public defender received sentences that were, on average, 3 years longer than those who hired private criminal defense attorneys.

However, this study was quick to caution that there may be an explanation for this discrepancy. It was speculated that people who knew they were guilty or knew that there was overwhelming evidence against them, such as videotaped evidence, opted for public defenders rather than spending money on a private criminal defense attorney.

While these studies show the effects of private counsel, public defenders and court-appointed attorneys in a general sense, there are very good attorneys working in each of these roles. A person accused of a crime should weigh the options available to them and choose the best criminal defense attorney for their situation, which just may be private counsel.


U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Who’s Better at Defending Criminals?,” Thomas H. Cohen, 2011.

The New York Times, “Free-Market Justice,” Morris B. Hoffman, January 8, 2007.

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