Questions are raised about defender who has seen several clients go to death row

By Michelle de Leon | Oct 20, 2016

JACKSONVILLE, FLORIDA – Amid the spending concerns raised against outgoing Fourth Judicial Circuit public defender Matt Shirk, questions on his choice of second-in-command have been bombarding him since his election in 2008. Experts believe that failure to properly prepare for cases has caused unnecessary suffering to the office's clients.

The death penalty record of Shirk ranks as one of the worst in Florida, with experts laying the blame on Refik Eler. The two are said to be close friends. Shirk appointed Eler as his second-in-command immediately after his election in 2008. Eler took over the position vacated by the director of the death-penalty unit at the time after Shirk fired the latter.

Eler has been tasked to defend most of the death penalty cases of Shirk. Instead of bolstering the public defender’s image, however, his assistant earned the reputation of being an ineffective counsel. In at least four instances before the Florida appellate courts, Eler’s inefficiency and inability to properly defend his clients were cited and pointed out by the judges.

The courts noted how Eler failed to properly investigate the cases he handled. He was also unable to produce and call witnesses who could have assisted his clients in their cases. His ineffective counsel covered his failure to cite the mental deficiencies or diseases of his clients before the courts. With these in mind, experts are alarmed, especially in light of the fact that these cases involve the death penalty. In fact, Eler reached the highest number of clients sent to death row in Florida. For instance, eight of his clients in Duval County had all been given the death sentence.

In August, the appellate courts overturned at least three of the cases handled by Eler. Two of those cases involved the death penalty while the other one caused the client to face a life sentence. The appellate courts noted the ineffectiveness of Eler during the trials, citing his failures as the representative of the public defender’s office. Due to the overturned decisions, the three trials must start over – expenses that will be covered by the taxpayers.

However, it appears that Eler is not affected by the reversals. He shared that the overturned decisions were merely part of his work as a part of the public defender’s office.

“I’m not troubled by the reversals. I’m troubled if the reversals are being used for political reasons,” said Eler via The Florida-Times Union. He added, “It’s like armchair quarterbacking. I’m sure every quarterback who threw an interception wishes they could throw another pass or run instead of throwing a pass, but a lot of times you’re going for the win.”

Meanwhile, Shirk reaffirmed his confidence in Eler. He shared that his second-in-command has an extensive background in death penalty cases and that Eler is more than capable of handling the concerns of his clients. Shirk further noted that his assistant is bound to face criticism due to the nature of his work. However, Shirk believes that Eler is an effective and competent counsel for his clients.

 “I have complete confidence in Refik. The guy's tried more death-penalty cases than any other lawyer in the 4th Circuit,” said Shirk via The Florida-Times Union. He added, “When you try that many cases, you're bound to have people second-guess your work, and hindsight's always 20/20. He's a competent, good lawyer, does good work. He manages our lawyers well, he's a good mentor, and again, I have full confidence in him.”

Shirk lost his re-election bid in the 4th Circuit Public Defender primary race to former judge Charlie Cofer, who achieved a landslide victory.

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