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Passion for helping others fuels new Public Defender’s Office leader

Sean I. Mills
Staff writer
email / twitter
Posted 10/22/22

For the new head of the Oneida County Public Defender’s Office, helping indigent clients and those who can’t afford their own attorney is both her “passion” and a proud obligation.

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Passion for helping others fuels new Public Defender’s Office leader


UTICA — For the new head of the Oneida County Public Defender’s Office, helping indigent clients and those who can’t afford their own attorney is both her “passion” and a proud obligation to the United States Constitution.

The Sixth Amendment of the Bill of Rights guarantees every American charged with a crime the right to a qualified and trained attorney. If you can’t afford your own high-priced defense attorney, you will likely be assigned a public defender to represent you in court.

“My life experience started to show me that people on the defense side of things, I think, needed more help. In this position, we’re constitutionally guaranteed. I was created by the Constitution, and I think that’s a really big deal,” said Tina Hartwell, newly appointed head of the Criminal Division of the Oneida County Public Defender’s Office.

“It’s important for people to understand that people who work in the Public Defender’s Office, we do this because it’s who we are. It certainly isn’t for the money. It certainly isn’t for the notoriety. It’s because we truly believe in not only the Constitution, but being able to help people.”

Hartwell, age 53, has worked for the Oneida County Public Defender’s Office for 21 years, wearing many hats throughout her career, from general counsel to leading a regional immigration legal division. She was appointed to the top position this month following the retirement of longtime chief public defender Frank Nebush, who stepped down in 2020 after nearly 40 years of service.

“It’s an honor and a privilege to now lead this office” and to carry on the legacy of her mentor, Nebush, said Hartwell in a recent interview with the Daily Sentinel.

“This is my home. This is a work family. Everyone here just has this unbelievable commitment to helping our clients. So how could I say ‘no’ to wanting to help them with that and to bring them out of COVID?”

Hartwell’s plans for the agency involve a stronger focus on “client-centered representation” and growing her office’s relationship with the community at large. She hopes to bring back in-house training in the wake of the pandemic, as well as training for other legal professionals across the area.

“We need to have a better relationship with our community,” she said, and has asked her staff to brainstorm some community activities to join.

“I’m all about helping clients, not only when they come into the court system, but I want them to see us as human beings out in the community helping. That’s who we are. It’s kind of ingrained in us. It’s not just a job.”

Legal calling

Raised in the village of Bainbridge in Chenango County, Hartwell said her desire to become a lawyer was born out of a desire to be a better person than those who would look down on people with her background.

“I grew up in a very small town. People who were of professional status, they were seen as very important. My family, we’re farmers and factory workers,” Hartwell stated.

“The professionals in my area didn’t treat people very nicely. And so I said, ‘well if I knew what they knew, I will treat people better’.”

Hartwell graduated from Syracuse University in 1991 and pursued a master’s degree, also from Syracuse, immediately after. She took several years off after that to gain some life experience before attending Albany Law School to become an attorney, graduating in 1999.

She originally planned to become a prosecutor, but was instead hired by the Oneida County Public Defender’s Office and has been there ever since.

“Public defenders really do get a bad name. We care so much about the client that we tend to upset a lot of apple carts,” Hartwell explained.

“Nobody likes me. The district attorneys don’t like me because it’s our job to be adversarial, to advocate for the other side and hold them to a higher standard. The judges don’t like us because we ask for a mitigation or we seem to take too long with cases. And, believe it or not, our clients don’t like us. Why? Because on one of their worst days, we were given to them. And who were we given to them by? By the government, the people who they feel are oppressing them.”

For Hartwell, representing accused criminals in court is not simply a matter of filing paperwork and striking plea deals. She said it is, first and foremost, about helping people.

Representing human beings

“It’s not just about the charges, it’s about the human being who has now just been charged and thrust into this criminal justice process. It’s about us making sure that that person is being taken care of, not only about the legal aspects, but also why are we here? At least 80% of all defendants are probably dual-diagnosed alcohol, substance abuse and/or mental health,” said Hartwell.

“A lot of our clients have mental health issues, and they can range from the lowest to the highest. We see it all. It’s so important for us to make sure that clients are being heard and that we are trying to get them the help that they need. My purpose is to help you figure out how you got here in the first place so that, if I did my job right, then you’re doing well in life and I will never see you in a courtroom again.”

Since starting as a public defender, Hartwell said there has been a noticeable shift in how extensively her office can help clients. She will not only oversee more than a dozen defense attorneys (with several openings), but her office has two trained social workers on staff to help clients.

She has helped run her office’s participation in adult drug court, mental health court and integrated domestic violence court. In 2017, she headed up a regional immigration training division, assisting defense attorneys across 16 counties in Central New York with immigration issues after a landmark Supreme Court case required all defense attorneys to be aware of immigration consequences for non-citizen clients.

“We don’t defend the actions of the person. We defend the Constitution. Because everyone is entitled to have an attorney represent them, to make sure that everyone has done their job appropriately, has not run over Constitutional rights. And then what we do is try to help the person not be in the situation again,” Hartwell explained.

“Why can’t a person, who cannot afford an attorney, have an attorney like me? I’m going to do everything that I possibly can to help that individual through this crisis that they’re having. This has always been my passion. This has been me.”


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