published Tuesday, June 24th, 2014

Hamilton County public defender faces GOP challenger

Editor's note: This is one in a series of stories on contested races in area county primary elections.

In her fourth bid to remain head of the Hamilton County Public Defender's Office, Ardena Garth will face Republican challenger Steve Smith, a former prosecutor.

Garth has been the only public defender here since the office's inception in 1989. She won her first two elections to the eight-year term against previous challengers but did not face opposition in the 2006 race.

"My four points are experience, expertise, leadership and commitment," Garth, 58, said.

She helped establish the office after her initial appointment. The office serves indigent defendants in both Hamilton County General Sessions and Criminal courts.

Steve Smith won his unopposed May primary election for the GOP nod with 12,031 votes. Though the Republican turnout was significantly higher than the Democrats', Garth won her unopposed primary with 5,620 votes from supporters.

Smith, 41, said in a recent interview that his goal is to create a more efficient public defender's office. He said charges that take more than a year to reach trial are unnecessary in most cases.

"It's borne out of a system that believes that delay is good for the defendant," Smith said. "Maybe that makes sense if you have a client on bond."

For defendants with the means to hire a private attorney, many also can pay bail and be free awaiting trial. But most of the indigent defendants being represented by the public defender may not be able to pay, meaning they'll be in jail that entire time.

He'd demand more trials earlier for those cases that can't be resolved by plea negotiations between the public defender and prosecutor, Smith said.

"If a person is facing an accusation and the government wants to take away their liberty or property it must go to trial," he said.

Both candidates are spending time meeting with voters and county residents, trying to explain the importance of the office a majority will never encounter.

"There's got to be somebody who stands between the general public and those accused of crimes," Smith said.

Garth pointed to her involvement in the beginnings of the county drug court, which offers treatment and second chances to drug addicts convicted of nonviolent crimes. She also is working with court personnel on establishing the mental health court, which would offer programs to help mentally ill people accused of crimes.

Contact staff writer Todd South at tsouth@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347.

about Todd South...

Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...

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