WHEN I walk into Christopher Middleton’s office, I think for a minute that the lawyer still hasn’t unpacked. Middleton is Chatham County’s assistant public defender.
It’s been two years since his office moved to a new building. And his workplace still has that “newly moved in” look of bare walls.
No degrees, no honors, no football trophies greet you. What gives? Is his personality hiding in a box somewhere?
“When I walk into this office, it’s about the client,” he says of his intentionally impersonal decor. “Every time I come through that door, I come through the door to work.”
I can’t imagine a workplace without personal tchotchkes. But I also can’t imagine the kind of work that Middleton does. He works in the public defender’s major crimes unit.
To put it bluntly, he defends accused rapists, armed robbers, child molesters and drug traffickers. Anyone who could serve a life term, if proven guilty. He’s on their side.
“I feel that it’s a great honor to represent a citizen and protect those rights embodied in the United States constitution,” he says. “There’s no higher privilege.”
Of course, all accused criminals have the right to a lawyer, regardless of income. The U.S. Supreme Court acknowledged this in the 1963 case of Gideon vs. Wainwright.
Living up to that decision, however, has remained a constant battle. Many see Gideon as a frontline in the struggle for civil rights.
“I love to champion the underdog,” Middleton says. “Just because you’re considered indigent, you shouldn’t receive less than quality, less than stellar legal representation.”
Okay, we get that. But who goes into a career knowing that he or she will work just as hard but be paid less than others in the room? A happy person, judging by Middleton.
Public defense is a calling. And in Middleton’s case, it extends a deep community service ethic. He volunteers for more than a half-dozen groups, including Citizens Advocacy and AWOL.
He got this way of being from growing up here in Savannah.
Savannah State University humanities professor Charles Elmore encouraged his passion for communicating. Mayor Floyd Adams Jr., who hired him as speechwriter, encouraged his passion for the common man. And Tigers football coach Steven Wilks encouraged his doggedness.
“As a former athlete, I was thinking maybe sports law or entertainment law,” he says of his choices after graduating Vermont Law School in 2007.
“But when I interned for the public defender’s office in Berkeley County, S.C., I began to quickly realize that I love being in the fight.”
And there’s another mentor he praises, his outgoing boss. Chatham County chief public defender Michael Edwards is leaving office this month to take a teaching job in England.
Edwards is credited with creating initiatives to prevent crime in the first place. Robert Persse, Edwards’ counterpart in Statesboro, will take Edwards’ place on August 17th.
The new man surely will notice the only personal item in Middleton’s office. He does have one. I didn’t notice it until I was packing my recording equipment on the way out.
It’s a chess set. He’s a passionate chess player.
“It teaches you strategy,” Middleton says. “It teaches you to set goals, to have a clear goal in mind. It teaches you how to adjust.”
No points for guessing his favorite pieces.
“When placed and utilized properly, the pawn can be a very powerful piece on the board,” he says.
It’s an apt metaphor. Young men, not placed and utilized properly by parents and society from an early age, often end up staring at bare walls for a long time.