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Public defender tackles job with compassion
Assistant public defender Bess Walthour takes a phone call regarding a client in her downtown Hinesville office. She has been an attorney for 25 years and a public defender for 15 years. - photo by Phgoto by Patty Leon
Name: Bess L. Walthour

Occupation: Assistant public defender with the Atlantic Judicial Circuit based in Hinesville. Walthour became an attorney 25 years ago and has served as a public defender for the last 15 years. She is thinking about exploring the prosecutorial side of law in the near future to round out her career.

Education: Walthour completed her first year of law school at the University of Georgia. She received her juris doctorate from Howard University in Washington, D.C. She earned her master’s of law from Emory University. While studying for her master’s, she went to Budapest, Hungary, for a semester to study international law.

What made you decide to become a defender? Walthour said her career as a public defender happened by chance.
“It wasn’t by choice and it wasn’t what I set out to do,” she said. “I worked as a federal government lawyer for a few years and wanted to return to the state of Georgia. After passing the Georgia Bar I sought out to find employment. I actually had a position with a prosecutor’s office, which entailed my moving and, since me youngest son was still in school attending Woodward Academy, I did not want to uproot him because the school was so good and educationally I thought it was the best for my child.”
Instead she took a position offered by the Dekalb County Public Defender’s office and that launched her career in public defense.
“I got involved with it and liked what I was doing,” she said. “I felt I was providing a service. I feel that indigent clients deserve as good a service as if they were paying for their lawyers themselves because their cases are just as important. The Sixth Amendment guarantees everyone charged in the state of Georgia or in this country the right to legal representation. I feel that anybody who enters that field must enter it with not only a zeal for representing people in general but they must enter it with some compassion and see the total person and not the crime.”
Walthour said the hard part of her profession is sometimes dealing with people accused of heinous crimes or the preconceived guilt many people judge upon those charged.
“I think that you must separate yourself from the crime alleged and the person charged because you are not the trier of fact,” she said. “That is left to a judge or a jury. You have to look at the charge and only deal with the charge. You have compassion for both the victim and your client, but you must represent your client with zeal and look at every aspect of the law to make sure that his rights are not being violated. So you must separate the two. In terms of taking work home, that is very hard not to do because I’m a caring person. The thing that pains me the most is when I have that gut feeling, and I hate to use that word, gut feeling, but you have that perception, that sixth sense that this person truly is not guilty and you have to use everything in your armor of tools to prove him innocent even though the law says he is innocent until proven guilty…”
She said she understands the sympathy the community usually bestows upon the victim.
“Everybody deserves a right to happiness, tranquility, peace and to be left alone,” she said. “So when a person has been violated, everybody feels a sense of violation. Even I do. But still I have to do my job ...”

What is the greatest reward in your career?
“When I am able to convince a prosecutor that this person is really not guilty and get a case dismissed,” she said. Boy that is a jubilation that is hard to describe …”

Do you have a family?
Walthour is engaged to former Bradwell basketball coach David Jones. Their engagement has spanned four years but she said she is the one who has been holding the nuptials.
“I was single for 10 years so it’s kind of hard to give that up and I know that I will have to, but right now I am happily engaged,” she said. “Very happily engaged.”
Walthour has two sons who she said are the loves of her life.
Karim Walthour Lawrence, 31, is a lawyer and sports agent. Darius Lawrence, 38, has his own business in property management.

Would you change anything about your life and career if you could?
“I didn’t start out to be a lawyer but I’m glad I did it,” she said. “I was influenced by my sister who was almost two years older than I. She was a patent attorney.”
Walthour lost her sister suddenly in 1996 and that was a big blow to her.
“I carry a lot of the values I feel that she had and she was the influential one to get me to go to law school,” she said. “I’m glad I did. Looking back, I don’t think I would change anything. I did it in a way it was destined to be done and I’m pretty satisfied with it.”

What is the salary range for a public defender? Walthour said the salary for public defenders varies from region to region and increases with experience but, in the southeast area of Georgia, a beginning defender can expect a range from $35-50 thousand a year.

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