Editor's Note — As part of our coverage of the Aug. 7 general election, we previewed the public defender race between Leif Jeffers and Mark Blakley in our July 24 edition. See our profile of Blakley here.
Aug. 10, 2006, is a day Leif Jeffers isn’t likely to forget anytime soon.
One week earlier, Jeffers had defeated long-time incumbent Martha Yoakum — his boss — in the Eighth Judicial District Public Defender’s race by a razor-thin margin. Only 88 votes across five counties had separated the two in one of the closest judicial elections in the history of the Eighth District. But Jeffers had won and was already making preparations to assume the office on Sept. 1. He had been in discussion with the president of the Tennessee Public Defenders Conference to discuss personnel and salary issues. He had celebrated with family.
Then came the call.
Claiborne County — Yoakum’s home county — had decided to recount. They found 100 extra votes. Yoakum was declared the victor by 12 votes.
“Devastating is not the word,” Jeffers said last week, as he took a break from campaigning to talk with the Independent Herald. “It was really tough. It was one of the most difficult things that I’ve been through on any kind of professional level.”
From that moment, there was never any doubt in Jeffers’ mind that he was going to run again when the next election rolled around. And roll around, it has.
“There’s never been a real hesitation about it,” Jeffers said. “Somebody needs to do (public defense work). And I like doing it.”
Jeffers is quick to point out that this election isn’t about the 2006 race, which saw Yoakum continue as the district’s public defender until she retired in late 2012 and Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam appointed Huntsville attorney Mark Blakley to fill out the remainder of her term. But he’s just as quick to point out that the gut-wrenching turn of events eight years ago has made him better — better as a person and better at his job.
“You hear all your life things like, ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,’ and, ‘The Lord’s got a plan.’ Well, he does,” Jeffers said. “In reality, I’m a better lawyer and a better person now than I was eight years ago. The experience overall has been good.”
Among the things Jeffers has been into since that last venture into politics eight years ago is a six-year stint as an assistant district attorney. And working for “the other team,” he says, has helped broaden his abilities.
“I’m comfortable with all aspects of being in court,” he said. “I’ve worked in law enforcement (a five-year stint with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations in the early 1990s), I’ve worked as a defense attorney and Ive worked as a prosecutor. I know how to do it and how to handle it. It has given me better perspective for the job.”
Stepping aside from the D.A.’s office will not be easy, Jeffers admits, but he also knows what his heart is set on.
“There’s a lot I like about it,” he said of his time in the D.A.’s office. “It’s good to work with law enforcement. I have had a lot of fun with those guys, and I’m close to a lot of those officers. I’ll miss a lot of that. But my calling is to do defense work.”
Jeffers also admits that the public defender’s office — taking cases where clients have been charged with crimes and cannot afford to retain private legal counsel — is difficult work. But there, too, he finds himself at home.
“It’s very challenging,” he said. “You have to be creative, and you have to come at things from a completely different angle. I like doing that. It’s very gratifying for me.
“Helping guilty people get away with stuff is not the point, as I think anyone who has been around that line of work will tell you,” he added. “What you’re there for is to give your client the best representation you can of whatever version of reality they’re presenting.”
Jeffers did not always intend to be a public defender. He did not intend to be a defense attorney at all. After graduating from the University of Tennessee in 1989, he spent nearly a year in juvenile probation, then accepted a job with the TBI.
“What I was doing was fun and I really enjoyed it; I had a great time,” he said. But working closely with district attorneys during that time piqued another interest — a desire to prosecute the cases he was building as a TBI agent. Having already taken and passed the law school admissions exam, he returned to UT and graduated in 1997 with a law degree. But home was beckoning.
“Lisa and I both wanted to come back home,” Jeffers said. “We both wanted to be here. And there wasn’t a position open with the D.A.’s office at that time. But there was a position open with the public defender’s office, so I took it.”
It didn’t take Jeffers long to figure out that he was right at home.
“Within six months, I knew that’s what I needed to be doing,” he said. “So I did.”
Jeffers’ nine years as a public defender made him a better assistant district attorney when he took a job with the D.A.’s office in 2008. And his work as an assistant district attorney, he says, will make him a better public defender.
“I know what it’s like to be the officer that’s working the case,” he said. “I’ve been on that side of it. I know how to respect the officer. There’s a way to do this job without being a jerk about it. You can treat people in a professional way.”
Even after going to work in the D.A.’s office in 2008, there was never a moment of doubt in Jeffers’ mind that he would make another run for the public defender’s office in 2014. The looming campaign took a turn in 2012, when Yoakum retired and Blakley was appointed, but Jeffers remained firm in his resolve.
“I don’t have anything against Mark; it’s not a personal thing at all,” Jeffers said. “(But) I’ve prepared myself for this job. I’m good at it, and I’ll work hard every day.”
Jeffers shrugs at the fact that Blakley was appointed to the position by Gov. Haslam.
“For the kind of salary that this position pays, somebody should be in there who wants the job and who wants to earn the money,” Jeffers said. “It shouldn’t be the kind of thing that gets handed to you and you just hang around. I’m not throwing stones at Mark because I understand him wanting to keep the job. I get that he wants to stay there. But this is not what he’s prepared himself to do. He hasn’t spent a lot of time doing criminal work. I have, and that’s what I want to do. It might be crazy, but I enjoy it. I work hard at it and I enjoy it, and I think that’s what we need.”