Delaware County: First public defender John Cornely willing to be 'a little ornery at times'
America's justice system hinges on a legal defense that advocates for the rights of the accused, and Delaware County's first public defender said he is the man for the job.
John Cornely of Lewis Center assumed the post in March after the Delaware County commissioners – in consultation with the county’s judges – reestablished the county’s Public Defender Commission in September.
“As our county has grown, it has become apparent that the next step in transitioning is to create a public-defender office,” commissioner Gary Merrell said at the time.
Commissioners said the step was taken in part to mitigate billings of about $1.06 million paid for the defense in 2,973 cases in 2019.
Cornely, a 1993 Olentangy High School graduate, previously served three years as deputy director in the Office of the Ohio Public Defender. He also was director of Ross County’s public-defender office and was an assistant public defender in Athens County.
Defending the rights of the accused, Cornely said, "is what we're here for – to make sure people have that right and the ability to take stuff to trial if they want.”
"It helps to believe in the system," for an attorney to be a public defender, Cornely said. "It also helps to be somebody who likes to fight and be a little ornery at times."
Bringing back the Public Defender Commission also helps cut government costs, he said.
"A lot of the stuff we're going to do will be stuff that also will save the county money in the short and the long run. We're going to start representing everybody at arraignment,” he said. “Currently, if you're arrested, you're held in jail. You go to court the next morning. You don't have a lawyer. If they set bond and hold you, you have to come back in two days for another hearing with a lawyer.
“We're going to be present at the first hearing so we don't have to have a second hearing. And there are a whole host of studies that have been done that say if you have a lawyer at that first hearing, more people get out,” he said. “Which means fewer jail days and better results."
It helps the docket and the clients, he said.
“Hopefully, it will make everything go smoother, save everybody time and money, but also get better representation," he said.
In April, the public-defender's office added attorneys Garrett Smith and Alex Hoffman, who have practiced in Columbus.
"We are expecting with three attorneys that we'll be able to handle about 60% of the felony cases in the county. So there's about 900 felony cases, including community-control violations, a year," Cornely said. "And we'll represent people in (Delaware Municipal Court) on anything that carries the possibility of jail time. I estimate there will be about 1,000 municipal court cases, and we'll do about 75% of those."
The accused are allowed choices in the defense of their cases, he said.
"We're doing what our client wants. It's about what they want,” he said. “It's about making sure they know what the decisions to be made are and the risks and the rewards. And sometimes they make decisions we wouldn't make but for their own reasons. Other times, we try cases because there's simply nothing else to do."
The amount of time required to defend a case will vary, he said.
"It's not always based on how serious the case is. Sometimes it's just how complicated the case is,” he said. “Sometimes it's the client and what the client needs. We deal with a lot of people who have mental-health and drug and alcohol issues, and that can require a lot of time."
Both the municipal and common-pleas courts in the county have mental-health dockets, he said, and they take people off regular probation caseloads to focus more on mental health.
"The probation officers do a good job," he said.
Across Ohio, "in general, there's not a lot of mental-health availability in the communities,” he said.
“It's just everywhere. (The needs are) in terms of providers and awareness (and) getting people help,” he said. “Our local people do a great job of helping, but for a lot of these people, there just isn't enough help available."
Although Delaware County is one of Ohio's most affluent counties, the nature of crime is essentially the same across the state, he said.
"You're going to have drug abuse, shoplifting, theft offenses. All of those sorts of base-level economic and socio-economic crimes are the same throughout,” he said. “Delaware County has a lot lower crime rate in terms of what's going on because it's better off. But (the accused are) the same sort of individuals, the same sort of crime.
“You talk about people who are mentally ill, people who have drug addictions, people who come from broken homes, people who have hard upbringings,” he said. “That's all the same over and over and over."
Cornely said he hopes to bring to Delaware County a program he has implemented elsewhere – a driver's-license reinstatement day. That would involve having representatives of the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles and attorneys at municipal court to look at license-suspension reports and set up payment plans with the BMV and the court for those with suspended licenses.
Another goal is a program to get expungements and sealing of records for those who qualify, he said.
Once a person is labeled a felon, he said, finding employment can be very difficult.