Joseph Smith, Jr. takes his time to get to know his clients and to help them tell their stories – even when their case captures national media attention.
Smith, an assistant state public defender in the Wisconsin State Public Defender office for more than 20 years, helped defend Anissa Weier in the highly publicized “Slender Man” case. For more than three years, he fought to establish that the then 12-year-old was not criminally responsible for the attempted murder of a classmate. Smith and his fell counsel, Maura McMahon, argued that even though Weier had taken part in the stabbing, she was not responsible by virtue of her shared delusional psychosis. A Waukesha County jury agreed and found Weier not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect.
“My clients sometimes have a lot going against them and I want to tell their story in such a way that shows their viewpoint,” said Smith, who traveled regularly to the West Bend detention center to keep Weier up to date and comforted throughout the legal process.
The long legal battle saw Smith transferred from the Waukesha to Milwaukee office. Still, he kept working on Weier’s behalf. He said the staffs of both offices provided support by attending hearings when he couldn’t and offering advice. He also had high praise for his co-counsel.
“Maura was also incredible to work with,” Smith said. “She did as much as I did.”
Samuel Benedict, regional attorney manager for the SPD, credited Smith for being able to remain calm under intense stress. “He is often called upon to work on cases under the most difficult of circumstances,” he said.
When Smith was working in Waukesha, he helped organize a drive to bring in toys, games and books for children at the shelter. He would often stay well after business hours to play games with clients.
“Joseph is a tireless advocate for his clients and a lawyer who leads by example,” McMahon said, adding that one former client had told her that Smith had visited on Thanksgiving and Christmas and even on his birthday. “Joseph did and that made all the difference.”
Beyond working on his caseload for Milwaukee County, Smith is also part of a team overseeing the legal and treatment needs of juveniles held at Lincoln Hills School and Copper Lake School.
“I am passionate about helping clients tell their stories and getting them to a better place when the case is over,” he said.