In the American system of criminal justice, all accused people are granted the right to an attorney, regardless of their ability to afford one.

In West Volusia, when a defendant in a criminal case can’t afford a lawyer, the job of conducting his or her criminal defense falls to the Office of the Public Defender for the 7th Judicial Circuit.

Incumbent Public Defender James Purdy will step down when his four-year term ends at the end of this year, after 16 years in office.

Purdy’s retirement has attracted three candidates from around the 7th Circuit, which includes Volusia, Flagler, St. Johns and Putnam counties.

The public defender is elected for a four-year term by the voters in those counties, and the job pays $169,554 a year.

Whoever wins will supervise a team of some 85 attorneys along with 50 support and administrative staff members.

The three candidates running to replace Purdy are George Burden, 62; Anne Marie Gennusa, 53; and Matt Metz, 34.

Burden and Metz currently work at the Office of the Public Defender in different capacities, while Gennusa was a public defender in New York before opening a law practice here.

All three are running as Republicans. They’ll be on the ballot Tuesday, Aug. 18, in what would normally be a closed primary in which only Republicans could vote. However, since no candidate from any other political party filed to run for the public-defender job, the primary (and, if necessary, a November runoff) is open to all voters.

If one of the three contenders gets more than 50 percent of the votes cast Aug. 18, he or she wins the job. If not, the top two vote-getters will meet in the November runoff.


George Burden

Name: George Burden

City of residence: Daytona Beach

Current occupation: Chief of the capital-appeals division for the Office of the Public Defender for the 7th Judicial Circuit

Age: 62

Education: Studied law at Rutgers University, University of Oklahoma

What motivated you to run for this office?

I’ve been a career public defender. I’ve been with the office for 30 years. Mr. Purdy has been our public defender for the last 16. I want to help with retention, to have career public defenders again. There's not many like me left in the office.

The reason I was able to be a career public defender was the telecommuter program, where I got a lot of experience as a private attorney, as well — 20 years as an estate planner and probate attorney, all the while being a public defender. It’s allowed me to make the living that I could for my four sons.

We have no trouble recruiting people to come work at the office, because it’s the quickest way to get trial experience. But in the last decade, we have not been able to keep public defenders.

We train them, they get good, and they leave us. It’s a function of the compensation, and not having a program like telecommuting. Mr. Purdy stopped the program 16 years ago. We have about 100 lawyers; I’d say 70 percent of them have been there for less than 10 years.

Why should someone vote for you over an opponent?

I’ve worked in every division in the office. I’m the only candidate that can try a capital case or can do a capital appeal. So, if they win, they’ll be supervising someone on work that they themselves can’t do. I’ve appeared before the Florida Supreme Court 41 times.

My leadership background is also very strong, having been an Air Force intelligence officer. I served overseas and went to Squadron Officer School, and was surrounded by great leaders in the military. I’m going to use the lessons I’ve learned.

I’ll give you an example. I was chief of the appellate division, and we supervised 30 lawyers. The largest case in the history of the office came up; it was 22,000 pages.

Before, it would have been routine that someone would have been assigned that case, and they wouldn’t have been happy. I assigned the case to myself. It was so big, I couldn’t have it in the office; I had it in the conference room. You’re giving a message that I won’t ask you to do something I will not do myself. I’m going to have a caseload; I’m going to be a working public defender.

I am the best person for the job because of what I will do for the taxpayers. When we have the turnover we have, it costs the taxpayers because of training and other related costs.

I’m going to get a corps of career public defenders. It’ll be a better service to the consumer, and it’ll be more cost-effective without the turnover that we have. They’re going to have a Public Defender’s Office second to none in the state, and they will have an advocate for those last three words in the Pledge of Allegiance, which are “justice for all.”

What role do you think the Public Defender’s Office plays in the discussion over criminal-justice reform?

The biggest reform that could have an immediate impact — the Florida criminal code says the purpose of the code is punishment, not rehabilitation. The Legislature specifically said, in this state, that the criminal code is there to punish.

Thankfully, we have a state attorney in Mr. Larizza who believes in diversion programs, and we’re going to expand them.

We have diversion programs for veterans, for drug-abusers, for juveniles, and we’re going to try to expand those diversion programs, and we’re going to try more help.

We’ve got to stop the cycle of these young kids that are just breaking the law, breaking the law — it’s a revolving door, the juvenile system. Then they graduate and become an adult, and end up in felony court, and it’s more serious.

I am going to be working with the state attorney and his staff. There are people that could use a diversion program and benefit from it, and become a productive member of society. It’s going to take two; the state attorney has to go along with it, also.


Anne Gennusa

Name: Anne Marie Gennusa

City of residence: St. Johns County

Current occupation: Attorney at own firm focusing on criminal and family-law matters

Age: 53

Education: Studied law at Temple University, two master’s-level certificates from Villanova University

What motivated you to run for this office?

I was a public defender in the South Bronx; that was my first job. I loved the job. I moved to Florida 21 years ago. I was a single mom with two small children, and the opportunity did not arise to where I was able to get employment as a public defender here in Florida. So, I started my own practice, but it was always something I really loved to do. I saw myself being considered a “lifer,” but my work took a different course.

I’m now in my mid-50s, and I didn’t think I would see the opportunity arise again before I retired, so when the position became available, that it would be an open race, I approached a bunch of people, including Mr. Purdy, and they were all like, ‘Look, do what’s going to make you happy, it’s an open race. Have at it.’ And it’s worked out really well.

A lot of friends of mine know that for years I’ve done a lot of pro bono work. It does end up being serendipitous that the position opened up and my children are all grown. I’d get to do something that I have a personal love for, and I’d be able to mentor the attorneys, so it’s a win-win.

Why should someone vote for you over an opponent?

I have many types of experience, not just legal experience. I’ve been a small-business owner, for multiple businesses, not just my law firm, for over 21 years.

I know how to hire, fire and work within a budget, unlike my other opponents who have never done that. I’m the only one with true business experience.

The public defender is the CEO of the office, and their role is to make sure that everybody is doing their job, is motivated, and is complying with the rules. As a public employee, you have to be accountable, and you have to be motivated to represent people. It’s a very challenging job; it’s not like people understand what the public defender does.

I think it’s important that there be a leader who’s done more than just worked with the government their entire lives. I have, probably, the most well-rounded experience of all of my opponents.

I think what's really important is we all have a juris doctorate and we’re all attorneys. I think that’s kind of the minimum standard you should have for this position.

But, I think that the educational part of it … getting those certificates, especially one in human-resource management [is important], because whoever is the public defender is going to have to be compliant and work with the financial people and the person who’s in charge of budgeting, and making sure the laws are complied with and all of that kind of stuff.

I believe I’m the best candidate for that.

What role do you think the Public Defender’s Office plays in the discussion over criminal-justice reform?

I think they play a critical role. I’ve worked in two other states as a public defender, in New York and Philadelphia, and what you guys are calling criminal-justice reform, I saw that firsthand in the other places I worked more than two decades ago.

I’m the only candidate who actually has a mental-health background in working with special populations. I’m the only candidate who understands the dynamic of what alternative courts can bring to criminal-justice reform.

The public defender, I believe, is the foreperson in advocating for reform. I think the office in the past has not taken on that role, and I think that they need to. They should have been the No. 1 defender, especially in our circuit, for that.

I’m the only one who’s bringing in outside perspective to the office, and I believe that I’m the one the office needs to get to that next level.


Matt Metz

Name: Matt Metz

City of residence: Daytona Beach

Current occupation: Felony-division chief at the Office of the Public Defender for the 7th Judicial Circuit

Age: 34

Education: University of Florida for undergraduate (business), Florida State University for law school (graduated cum laude)

What motivated you to run for this office?

Having worked at the Public Defender’s Office for my entire career, I’ve seen just how important our job is, and I've also seen what we do well and what we can do better.

Right now, we do a good job giving our attorneys the autonomy they need to complete their jobs however it needs to be done. We can do better with some regulated training of the incoming misdemeanor attorneys, and I’d like to set up a mock-trial system. I’d also like to see us actively recruit from the top law schools in the area.

Why should someone vote for you over an opponent?

I supervise 12 other attorneys and their staff. I consult with Mr. Purdy on policy issues of the office, and sometimes take on special projects. I was previously part of the group that helped change our office over to paperless.

I also have a full active caseload that ranges from 100 to 130 cases. It’s actually recently ballooned up, because of the virus, to 150. We haven’t had a criminal trial since March, and we will not be likely to have one until at least late July.

I would say that I am the only person currently supervising a large number of people and actively managing a caseload. I’m the only candidate that’s board-certified in criminal trial law.

I’ve got a business degree from the University of Florida. So, between my experience at the office, my expertise of the law, and my business experience, I’ve got the right set of skills to take the office into the future.

Having been born and raised in Volusia County, and having a family that owns businesses here — and my mom’s obviously covered the news here for the last 30 some-odd years — I know this area intimately, I know its problems, and I care a lot about it, and that’s part of the reason I’m running.

What role do you think the Public Defender’s Office plays in the discussion over criminal-justice reform?

Because we don't actually have the power to legislate, our biggest role is to ensure that the rights we already have today are protected to the fullest extent of the law. That means having attorneys that are well-trained and well-versed in the different defenses that can be used, and who are willing to make creative arguments in the interpretation of constitutional law.

Especially as technology allows people to invade our personal lives in ways that we’ve never seen before, we have to be extremely creative when it comes to the Fourth Amendment, and what constitutes a search into our personal information.

And so, while we can’t actively change any laws, we can certainly make sure that any laws that are created and are unconstitutional get struck down as quickly as possible, and to make sure the system doesn’t just gobble people up, because there’s so many of them. Our office handles approximately 35,000 criminal cases every year in the four counties.

In the 7th Circuit, we do a pretty good job of handling the caseload, though certainly, we have more cases than we’d like.

There are other parts of the state, specifically in South Florida, where the Public Defender’s Office has been inundated far beyond their capabilities.

We’re not at that point; however, it’s not impossible for us to get there, either. The amount of funding we receive is always significantly less than our state-attorney counterparts, and when we talk about the appropriations budget, we generally have a hard time fighting for any extra funds on our own.