It is a Wednesday afternoon in October in suite 4700—the Durham County Public Defender’s Office. A woman sits in the corridor, Face-timing a friend. Minutes earlier, she stood at the receptionist’s window demanding a meeting with her “new lawyer.” She wears a hat emblazoned with the words No f***s given, blue jeans, and Ugg boots; her ankle monitor adorns the latter.
“We’re at the courthouse trying to figure out who my new lawyer is,” the woman, who is in her mid-twenties, sighs into her iPhone. “As soon as I get in contact with him… It’s get this s*** off my leg now!”
Last year, roughly 225,000 North Carolinians—including this woman—received court-appointed counsel. Every day, dozens visit the Durham Public Defender’s Office seeking legal representation and guidance. Some are skeptical, while others welcome the support.
Assistant public defender Zachary Thayer, 34, is assigned new clients daily.
His desk features his nameplate, a Darth Vader mug, and a crystal baseball paperweight. The file cabinet in the corner of his office currently contains case files for 90 clients—45 in Superior Court, 37 in District Court, and eight in jail. Atop the cabinet rests The Lawyer Joke Book.
Thayer, a Guilford College and Charlotte School of Law alumnus, has been at the Durham County Courthouse for eight years. He is one of 24 attorneys at the Durham County Public Defender’s Office. Thayer defends clients facing low and mid-level felony charges, including drug trafficking, theft, and assault.
As a child, he would spend mornings at his grandfather’s house, absorbing Perry Mason and Matlock, popular TV series about fictional defense attorneys. He decided he wanted to be a lawyer.
But why public defense?
“We all deserve someone to fight for us,” Thayer says. “My clients are human beings. That in itself means that they deserve a level of dignity.”
Public defenders’ offices are state-funded. These lawyers are state employees and do full-time defense work for people who can’t afford an attorney. Thirty-nine counties in North Carolina have public defender offices. The other 61 rely on Court-appointed counsel, or private practitioners with law firms or solo practitioners in local communities. These individuals are on the district’s or county’s “indigent roster,” a list of attorneys deemed qualified and willing to accept appointed cases.
The Office of Indigent Services (IDS), headquartered in Durham, oversees and supports this work throughout North Carolina. Among other work, IDS helps to fund and train public defenders.
Mary Pollard, executive director at the Office of Indigent Services, has been with the organization for a little over two years. But she started in private practice.
“I worked for a big firm. It was fascinating, and they paid me well,” Pollard says. “I got appointed pro-bono to this death penalty case where the guy turned out innocent. And it was just sort of this ‘fell on the road to Damascus’ moment where I was like, ‘Holy cow, this is kind of messed up.’ So, I changed focus, and here I am.”
She adds: “One big [advantage] to a public defender’s office is that, despite what you might have seen in TV shows or whatever, public defenders’ offices do provide consistently good quality of counsel. These are folks who have a heart for the work, and this is what they want to do full-time.”
The biggest challenge, Pollard says, is that IDS needs the North Carolina General Assembly’s authorization to open new public defender offices, especially in rural areas. If approved, IDS will expand services, covering the entire state by 2028.
Pollard says defense attorneys aren’t paid well. In North Carolina, the statutory minimum salary for a public defender is $47,482. However, the average salary for one office cannot exceed $88,468.
“They [criminal defense attorneys] have different motivators. Like some are libertarian, and they’re driven by the desire to make the government prove its case right,” Pollard says. “And then other folks are people-driven and feel like many of our clients didn’t get a fair shake in life; they want to mitigate the damage done to them.”
Each day, Thayer arrives at the office at 8:30 a.m. He checks email, specifically seeking those that contain lists of individuals arrested in the past 24 hours. Then, he double-checks that none are people he currently represents.
“You handle things as they come up,” Thayer says. On this particular Wednesday and Thursday, those “things” are domestic violence and district probation courts.
On Thursday at 9 a.m., Thayer sits alongside other assistant public defenders in the front pew of Courtroom 4D—Durham District Court. He wears a smooth gray suit and glasses. His light brown beard is dotted with gray.
In 4D, each attendee must arrive on time for the calendar call, wearing a mask—or receive a personal scolding from Judge Clayton Jones. In their downtime, attorneys exchange stuffed white envelopes (case files) and banter.
Jones calls one of Thayer’s clients to the stand.
The client, who appears to be in his 60s, shuffles to the aisle. He has short buzzed hair and wears a maroon quarter-zip; he clasps his hands behind his back. Thayer also rises to the center of the room, moving close to the defendant. The attorney, who stands over six feet tall, towers protectively over his client.
The defendant owes his sister $204.88 in restitution, and he has already paid $200, Thayer tells the court. He requests additional time for his client, citing financial restraints that have prolonged the process.
The judge grants Thayer’s request and pushes the case back to December 12th. Thayer walks with his client out of the courtroom.
Thayer is rarely in court after 11 a.m. Instead, he’ll return to his office to make phone calls, review discovery, and correspond with defense attorneys. On Thursday and Friday afternoons, he visits his clients in jail.
Contrary to popular television and media depictions, attorneys cannot be in the same room as their clients in Durham County. Instead, they sit inside a booth, separated by a thick sheet of glass. They use a thin slot for passing papers and documents.
After police arrest someone in Durham, the public defender’s office appoints them an attorney–if they request one. Next, an investigator from the office meets with the individual to discuss their charges. After that, Thayer is cleared to go see the new client.
He visits his clients who are incarcerated at least once before each court date—or once a month. When his schedule permits, he visits more frequently.
“In jail, there is a complete loss of personal autonomy. That is something I cannot understand,” Thayer says. “ Once, I asked a client, ‘How are you doing today?’ He responded, ‘What do you think? I’m in jail.’ Yeah… I never asked that question again.”
Public defenders can represent only indigent individuals—or those who cannot afford to hire an attorney. Thayer says these circumstances pose specific challenges. For example, many of his clients struggle to access food and basic health care.
“[These are things that] I have never worried about. My clients have a worldview shaped by circumstances I have never considered,” Thayer says. “As a result, what is normal to me isn’t what is normal to them in some situations. That is probably true of most attorneys.”
Thayer says his faith drives his work. He became a practicing Christian in 2019, four years after he had passed the bar.
“As I’ve grown in this role—and as a Christian—I understand that Jesus was an advocate for God,” Thayer says with a chuckle. “I’m not Jesus, but I get to do this for my clients. I get to stand next to people who have made mistakes. I get to stand next to people who are broken and hurting.”
Justice is more than a second chance, Thayer says.
“… It is a third or fourth [chance] because God doesn’t stop. He gives us an infinite amount of chances.”