Are public defenders good enough? Cumberland County family has its doubts

NEW CUMBERLAND, Pa. (WHTM) – In their one-bedroom apartment, Mary and Doug Kohr have a photo of their son Deven. All three are smiling. Deven is about 2 years old in the photo.

Those were happier times.

The image Doug and Mary have of Deven now is his Cumberland County Prison mugshot. He was convicted of killing his infant daughter and sentenced to 22 to 45 years in prison.

Doug remembers holding his granddaughter at the hospital on the day she died.

“I’ve seen deceased people before in my life,” he said. “I’ve never seen a child. I don’t ever want to see that again. It’s just a horrible thing.”

Deven had been alone with the girl when she passed away. The mother was out of town. The coroner said she died of traumatic asphyxiation and traumatic brain injury.

Deven insists he’s innocent and did not kill his daughter. Cumberland County District Attorney Skip Ebert insists the evidence says otherwise.

“The injuries to that child are simply unexplainable when that father was the only person watching the child for the entire period,” Ebert said.

The Kohrs couldn’t afford a high-priced defense attorney and turned to a public defender. The first PD assigned to Deven quit before meeting him. Deven said his next public defender didn’t return calls and didn’t meet with him. Doug and Mary say Deven told them both that he approached the public defender when he was visiting another inmate at the prison and was startled by what the attorney told him.

“He said, ‘what’s your hurry? You’re gonna do life anyhow.’ That’s not a very good thing for your attorney to tell you,” Doug said.

Doug and Mary said they attempted several times to meet with Deven’s public defender and finally got a face-to-face just before trial. They asked about the attorney’s strategy.

“He said, ‘I got eight other cases. I got a lot of other stuff going on,” Doug said.

ABC27 contacted the public defender who didn’t want to go on camera, citing a busy caseload.

Indeed, the number of opened cases in the Cumberland County Public Defenders office has steadily increased, according to Michael Halkias, the Chief Public Defender.

In 2015 it was 2,967.

In 2016 it was 3,314.

In 2017 it was 3,471.

Halkias noted that his attorneys are handling about a third more cases than is recommended by the National Legal Aid and Defender Association. He added, “It can be strained at times. Because of case numbers, it is difficult.”

“It’s not that they didn’t do their job. It’s just that they’re so overworked they just wanted to get through it and I think that’s not right,” Doug said, adding that there were questions about the baby’s health prior to its death that were not fully investigated or explored at trial. There were also no witnesses and Deven is steadfastly denying wrongdoing.

But Ebert says Kohr wasn’t convicted because of his lawyer. He was convicted because of the evidence. He read from a forensic report.

“That injury occurred within five to 15 minutes of the child’s death. I don’t care what kind of defense attorney you are. That’s a hard mountain to climb to refute that,” said Ebert, who began his career as a public defender.

Ebert also thinks there are unreasonable expectations on the part of defendants and their families.

“They watch too much TV and think everybody gets off. That’s not the real-life world,” he said.

But Kohr believes his son. He also senses that public defenders just don’t have the time or money to find their own experts that could plant seeds of doubt in the mind of a juror. And, he says, that’s not just a father talking but a man who wants to see justice served for all.

“I have no problem with him sitting in jail the rest of his life if he did it. He’s our son, but that’s our grandchild and that’s just a child,” Kohr said.

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