I recently had the chance to sit down with Elizabeth Kelley, a criminal defense attorney located in Spokane, Washington. She specializes in representing individuals with mental illness and developmental/intellectual disabilities. She practices in federal and state court at both the trial and appellate levels. Elizabeth has served two terms as a board member for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL). She chairs the Membership Committee, has served on numerous committees, is a Life Member, and has chaired both the Mental Health Committee and the Corrections Committee. Elizabeth hosts two radio shows, Celebrity Court and Celebrity Court: Author Chats on Blog Talk Radio and has also appeared on many national news channels as a legal commentator. Elizabeth is a seasoned litigator with over 18 years of trial experience.
What inspired you to specialize in criminal defense?
I honestly fell into it. I had hung out my own shingle and I was taking everything that came in the door. I was at a benefit and a female judge came up to me and said she had heard that I opened my own practice and asked if I was taking criminal cases. I said no way. The judge told me you need to be taking criminal cases and then informed me she was in the arraignment room that week and invited me to her division where she would go over a criminal file with me, explain the process, and consider appointing me on a criminal case. Like many criminal lawyers I started off by taking assigned cases and gradually expanded my practice.
So it was a woman that opened the door to criminal defense for you?
Yes it was.
Is there any unique aspect about being a woman that either helps or hinders you when you are defending a client?
In term of helping clients and their families, I think some people believe that a woman might be more understanding and more willing to listen. Probably in the beginning of my career I had the double whammy of being young and female and there was a perception from prospective clients and attorneys who might have needed co-counsel that I wasn’t tough enough, when in fact I was. I kept doing what I was doing with great success and I was able to get some high profile exonerations which put me on the map.
What representation of a client has most stayed with you through the years and why?
As you know, I specialize in representing clients with mental illness and developmental/intellectual disabilities so consistently I have experienced small victories when I can convince a judge that the level of culpability for my client with mental illness or developmental/intellectual disability is different than another person’s culpability. Particularly at the time of sentencing and during the litigation of pretrial motions, the fact that my client may have a mental illness or developmental/intellectual disability can have a huge impact on the Court. I am thinking specifically of a gentleman who tried to murder his mother within an inch of her life. He suffered from a profound case of schizophrenia and we were lucky to have an open minded judge who was willing to put this client on probation and placed him in the care and custody of an in-patient facility where he could get the proper rehabilitation services as compared to sending him to prison where he would not get better and become only a statistic. During the eight months while waiting for sentencing the mom healed physically and emotionally and she and the other families members were able to be supportive of the resolution.
How did you come to specialize in the representation of clients with mental illness and developmental/intellectual disability?
Well broadly speaking a huge number of people that go through the criminal justice system have some kind of mental illness or developmental/intellectual disability. Early on I had a client who had a developmental disability. He was a young man with mild retardation and he was conned by his so-called friends to be a lookout during a robbery and I worked very closely with his caseworker from the county board of retardation and his family. Although we couldn’t try the case because in fact he did perform the act that he was accused of, I was able to introduce all the mitigating circumstances and once again it was a compassionate and educated judge who had the understanding to see that this young man received the support services he needed to assure he would no longer be a danger to himself or a danger to the community.
Do you think that being a woman gives you an advantage in advocating for mentally ill clients?
I don’t know if my advocacy would be any different if I were a man. When I stand before a judge the judge knows I have spent time with my client, his or her family, and that I fully understand his or her needs and any concerns relating to my client’s case. I know the facts of my client’s case inside and out. Whenever the judge needs to understand the case or my client better I can provide answers. I think the judges know I have the utmost concern for my clients and the best interest of my clients at heart.
You have spent many years serving NACDL in multiple leadership positions, what changes have you seen for women in the criminal defense field?
In my experience at NACDL I haven’t seen a change in the role of women, but I have seen a consideration for prioritizing placing women in leadership roles, not only as president, but as board members, committee chairs, and active members of committees.