Attorneys Nikki Himebaugh, Jim Bowman and Chris Byrd discuss a case being handled by the Criminal Defense Clinic.Photo by Becky Campbell
The initials CDC is taking on a whole new meaning for two local communities and it has nothing to do with life-threatening diseases.
No, this CDC stands for Criminal Defense Clinic, and is a new concept to provide legal services for those who find themselves in need of a criminal defense attorney when they don’t qualify for a court-appointed one and can’t afford to pay full price for one.
Three local attorneys – Jim Bowman, Nikki Himebaugh and Chris Byrd – began operating the law firm in January and have already assisted several clients. And while the three still maintain their separate legal offices, they collaborate on the cases for clients represented by the CDC.
It’s not a free ride for clients, and the clinic is for-profit. But the attorneys are able to asses each client and apply a sliding fee scale for the service.
“I started thinking about this a long time ago,” Bowman said in his distinctive East Tennessee drawl. He approached Himebaugh with the idea and she was eager to be part of the clinic, as was Byrd. Himebaugh is an experienced attorney, but new to East Tennessee. Byrd has been practicing about a year and was also eager to be involved in the CDC.
“We all talk to people sometimes and say, ‘there’s nothing I can do for you,’” and there’s no reason to take their money when an attorney can’t get any better deal for them, Bowman said. But the cases the CDC is designed for are those that beg for representation for someone who is financially challenged to hire an attorney.
Bowman, Himebaugh and Byrd stressed that they are not trying to undercut fees other attorneys charge but they recognize that defendants sometimes just don’t have the money to pay for a lawyer. And to ensure adequate justice, the three joined together to create the clinic.
“Thankfully the system isn’t so bad that half the people in there are victims of the system,” Bowman said.
There is a similar clinic in Washington County for civil court, but that is designed to give free advice for people who can’t afford an attorney and just need some guidance to get a civil case – such as a debt collection – settled.
According to the clinic’s website –www.criminaldefenseclinic.biz - all fees are decided on an individual basis and the group could choose to not represent a person if it determines the case is too complicated for the amount of money a client says they can pay.
“As a general rule, however, the fees that we charge are less than you would expect to pay if you retained an individual lawyer,” the site states.
Bowman said the CDC will also represent clients for a full fee if the client is able to pay that amount. That, he said, will allow the clinic to also maintain its mission to provide quality legal service to people who can’t pay full price.
“We thought that if we could establish a law office that would reduce fees and (hopefully) we could do enough volume to make up for it,” Bowman said.
Byrd said the CDC is important because defendants don’t always understand the nuances of the law and that what may sound like a good deal for the immediate situation could become a big problem for the person in the future.
“Ninety plus percent of all cases are resolved in General Sessions Court. It’s crucial,” Byrd said.
Too often, Himebaugh said, defendants are “set up to fail,” when they try to handle a case alone because they can’t afford an attorney. The clinic’s goal is to help eliminate that situation.
The clinic is already having an impact for clients. Earlier this month, the clinic represented Amanda Engle, the Erwin woman acquitted in the infamous pizza-spitting case in Unicoi County. Engle, a single parent who was fired from her manager job at Pizza Hut after being accused of spitting on an officer’s pizza, was found not guilty after Bowman and Himebaugh took her case to trial in front of Judge Stacy Street.
The clinic is currently only taking cases in Washington and Unicoi counties. For more information about the Criminal Defense Clinic, call 676-2131. Information is also available on the clinic’s website,www.criminaldefenseclinic.biz
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