The five finalists for the Davidson County public defender post got to rehearse their sales pitches last night at a community forum at the Jefferson Street Missionary Baptist Church.
The forum was geared toward giving the candidates the opportunity to listen to the concerns of leaders and advocates from the Nashville African-American community.
The five finalists — Shirley Corry, Dawn Deaner, Laura Dykes, Isaiah “Skip” Gant and Kelvin Jones — will make their official sales pitch tonight in front of the Metro Council rules and confirmations committee. After that, the full Metro Council body will select Nashville’s next public defender.
The vacancy opened after the tragic death of Public Defender Ross Alderman in a motorcycle accident last month.
“I think for those of us at the office, all of us wish Ross were still here, but he’s not,” said Assistant Public Defender Dawn Deaner, one of two inner-office candidates.
The forum accentuated a real issue within the African-American community — a perceived distrust of the public defender’s office.
“I hope whoever it is, we need to stay in touch with the needs of our community and that is, we need someone to stay in tune with our community,” said the Rev. James Thomas of Jefferson Street Missionary Baptist Church. “Because right now… I don’t think the public defender leadership knows our community.”
Three of the finalists are African-American — Gant, Jones and Corry. Gant currently serves in the federal public defender’s office and is the most experienced of the finalists. But he was suspended from practicing earlier in his career for failure to pay taxes and also, by working in the federal office, is not as well known as the other candidates.
“I believe with my leadership, the office can be even better,” Gant said. “But that can’t be done with a single individual, it has to be done with community support.”
Jones is well-known, since he serves as executive director of the Metro Human Relations Commission. However, Jones has the least litigation experience of the finalists, all of whom have served as public defenders in the past.
Corry served in the office for five and a half years before going into private practice.
According to many observers, either Dykes or Deaner would be the clear favorite if the others weren’t in contention. Dykes, the current deputy director who has 19 years experience, said she’s been training to become public defender her entire career.
Deaner is considered a strong candidate, having served 11 years in the public defender’s office and having tried 33 jury trials.
But behind the scenes in the last several weeks Council members asked the public defender’s office to coalesce behind one candidate, which has not happened, making tonight’s vote unpredictable.