It was a Tuesday afternoon and Beth Merkin ’85, the head of the Office of Public Defenders at New Haven Superior Court, was alone in her office in an otherwise deserted building. This, she says, is part of her new reality.
“My clients’ cases are all on hold indefinitely because of this pandemic,” said Merkin, who represents those charged with Class A and B (the two most serious) felonies. “I don’t have much information to give them, and all the while they’re just sitting in jail, waiting.”
Merkin has managed the New Haven Public Defender's Office since 2017, when she became the first woman to hold the role. The Covid-19 pandemic has made it impossible for her to visit any of her clients, all of whom are incarcerated. She speaks with them via a Google phone number that can reach her 24 hours a day.
Merkin did not always want to be a lawyer. After finishing her undergraduate education, she lived for a year in Chicago, working at a school for delinquent girls. In that role, she realized she had a passion for helping people like them.
“I saw what the process was and how those girls really needed good advocacy,” Merkin said. “I also noticed a lot of public defenders weren’t doing a great job.”
From there, Merkin decided to attend the UConn School of Law, intending to work in children and family law. In law school, however, she found her home in the Criminal Clinic, where she realized her passion for defending those accused of crimes.
“I definitely lived in the Criminal Clinic,” Merkin said. ”I loved all the criminal law classes, I loved my evidence classes”
During the pandemic, Merkin works from home some days and goes into the office when she needs to. A special team of attorneys who work in her office handle overnight arraignments, communicating virtually with clients and avoiding contact.
While Merkin cannot visit her clients, she sends regular letters updating them on their cases and the pandemic. Courts across Connecticut are just starting to reopen on a limited basis, and Merkin has struggled with what to even tell her clients.
“Nothing like this has ever happened before,” Merkin said. “There’s no precedent and no handbook, so I can’t tell them when things will get back to normal because nobody knows.”
While the court closures have forced delays in her current cases, Merkin is not expecting a massive backlog of new cases once courts reopen. One strange upside of the pandemic, she said, is that there has been less crime. “Hard to commit crimes when you aren’t leaving the house,” she said.
While Merkin is worried for her clients and unsure about the future, she says she has enjoyed one notable benefit of working from home.
“It’s pretty great to be able to work in your comfy clothes,” she said. “That’s the silver lining.”