With Adams County Public Defender’s office already shorthanded, Nelson leaving as chief public defender on Feb. 15

Todd Nelson

Todd Nelson, chief public defender for Adams County, talks to an Adams County Jury during the Travis Wiley trial in November 2023. | File pool photo by Randy Phillips/MRN

QUINCY — Todd Nelson is stepping down after nearly 7½ years as the chief public defender for the Adams County Public Defender’s office. He sent a letter to county officials last week announcing his plan to leave the position on Feb. 15.

“The time has come for me to pursue other opportunities,” Nelson said in a prepared statement sent to Muddy River News.

Nelson’s decision comes three months after he informed Adams County’s six circuit court judges — Robert Adrian, Tad Brenner, Holly Henze, Scott Larson, Debra Wellborn and John Wooleyhan — that the public defender’s office would not accept new felony cases beginning Oct. 10. Nelson said the department is operating without three attorneys, and he believed the caseloads of current staff members were excessive.

The office began accepting new cases on Jan. 1.

Shelby Hoiness took a new job in Rochelle earlier this year. Babs Brennan resigned earlier this year. Vanessa Pratt took a job in December 2022 as a law clerk for Fourth District Appellate Court Justice Amy Lannerd. Their positions remain unfilled.

“I believe there could be more (resignations) coming,” Nelson wrote in his Sept. 25 letter.

Nelson wrote in his statement that public defense in Adams County has challenges ahead. 

A recent study (from the Sixth Amendment Center) found that public defense in Illinois is constitutionally deficient,” he said. “Chief among the cited reasons is that Illinois’ framework of funding public defense at the county level and appointing the chief public defender by the judiciary, rather than protecting the independence of the defense function, institutionalizes government interference in the provision of the right to counsel.”

Larson, the presiding judge for Adams County, will lead the search for Nelson’s replacement. He was surprised by the news. 

“I was not expecting it, nor do I think anyone was,” he said. “I guess there’s more to come. He’s given us notice, and at some point next week, I’ll have to at least have to have a conversation with him.”

Larson says Adams County and most downstate counties in Illinois are dealing with an attorney shortage.

“The job market is a cyclical one,” he said. “Twenty-five years ago, when a lot of us were just starting, it was a super tight job market. Now it’s difficult to find attorneys. We have attorney deserts downstate, so we’re somewhat not alone. It’s pressing, but we’re in a situation that’s very similar to many, many other counties.”

Kent Snider, chair of the Adams County Board, said Nelson’s resignation “definitely doesn’t help the situation.” 

“We’ve been farming (some of the cases) out to other attorneys in town to help us out, but yeah, it’s going to take some real work to put that office back together,” he said. “Now we have to find a new leader to help do that.

“Todd’s very nice, a very nice guy. I mean, he’s worked very hard. I think he may have just got a bit overwhelmed. It’s tough.”

Snider said John Simon, chief of the Adams County Ambulance and Emergency Management, was down to half of his staff six months ago.

“We raised his salaries for starting people, and he fully staffed that department in four months,” Snider said.

Asked if a similar plan needs to be employed in the public defender’s office, Snider replied, “I think it’s very possible.”

Christopher Pratt, an attorney in the Adams County Public Defender’s Office since 2016, filed in November to run for state’s attorney in Hancock County. He will face incumbent Bobi James in a Republican primary on March 19. He called the loss of Nelson “devastating.”

“I don’t know that anybody’s on the bench longer than Todd has been in that public defender’s office,” Pratt said. “That wealth of knowledge and experience, not just for all of us but for the entire courthouse, is leaving. I don’t think you can overstate how devastating that is to the courthouse.”

Pratt said the remaining members of the public defender’s office will do their best to “weather the storm.”

“I haven’t had a chance to sit down with Todd in-depth,” he said. “I don’t know what his conversations have been like with judges since his letter. The judiciary is in charge of appointing a chief public defender, and I don’t know what their plan is. I have no idea. I don’t know what they’re working on. What’s the short-term plan? I can’t answer that question. It’s not good.

“There are other issues at play here, and it’s contributing to, I think, some of these departures, whether anybody wants to acknowledge it or not.”

One of those issues is mold in the Adams County Courthouse. Two companies have investigated complaints of mold throughout the building. Snider said in late September 2023 that the county was moving forward with remediation of the problem.

A Pittsburgh native, Nelson has worked for the public defender’s office since 2005. He was named deputy chief public defender in October 2015, and he was selected in July 2016 to replace Holly Henze, who became an associate judge in the Eighth Judicial Circuit. She had led the office for four years.

Nelson wrote that he believes hope exists for a solution to the public defender’s office’s problems.

“Calls to implement a statewide public defense system have been growing louder, and efforts to do so have been gaining momentum,” he said. “Such a system also would help alleviate crushing workloads that are far in excess of the standards recommended by the National Public Defense Workload Study, published by the RAND Corporation this past fall. It now appears likely that legislation creating such a system will be introduced in the future.”

Nelson noted in his September letter that the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals prescribes a maximum of 150 felonies per attorney per year. He listed the number of open felony cases and number of felony cases closed between Jan. 1 and Sept. 10 of 2023 for each member of his staff, and the lowest number was 239 total cases.

Nelson called his colleagues and friends in the public defender’s office “dedicated.”

“All of them — attorneys and office staff alike — are talented, hard-working and big-hearted toward the underprivileged and disadvantaged,” he wrote. “Their collegiality and mutual respect are rare. They are the best of humanity. 

“The Adams County Public Defender’s Office always has labored under difficult circumstances and with limited resources. I know it will continue to do so as it works to protect the rights that belong to all of us — by protecting the rights of the indigent.”

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