New state public defender aims to bring modern approach to indigent defense

Jennifer Sellitti plans to restructure the office, which handled 55K cases last year

By: - January 23, 2024 7:16 am

Jennifer Sellitti will be New Jersey’s new chief public defender, starting Feb. 1, 2024. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

Lawrence “Sabir” Bell has three decades of experience with public defenders in New Jersey, enough to instill an entrenched cynicism about their work.

Since getting arrested for a 1990 Camden murder he has long maintained he didn’t commit, he has had public defenders file briefs in his case without consulting him. He’s met public defenders for the first time mere minutes before hearings where his fate hangs in the balance. And he’s heard similar stories from other men in prison who regard their legal representation as part of a system that has failed them.

“We had actually, inside the prison, taken to calling the public defender’s office ‘the public pretender’s office,’” Bell said.

That’s why Bell, 48, was ecstatic when New Jersey lawmakers last month approved Jennifer Sellitti to become New Jersey’s next state Public Defender. She will start the job Feb. 1.

Bell first met Sellitti, a 17-year veteran of the public defender’s office, in 2018, when she took on his case as part of a broader push to reevaluate excessive punishment for juvenile offenders. She visited him, unannounced, at East Jersey State Prison and asked him about himself, repeatedly steering the conversation back to him anytime he strayed to his case.

Jennifer Sellitti greeted Lawrence “Sabir” Bell outside East Jersey State Prison the day he was released. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Sellitti)

“It was the first time since my incarceration, arguably the first time in my life, where someone made an inquiry about me, the individual, and not me, the crime. It was the first time that I felt like I was more than a docket number,” Bell said. “Jenn had a genuine interest in me as a person. There was just something about her and her disposition that emoted goodness.”

Before long, Sellitti was regularly visiting Bell in her work to secure him a new sentence that would reflect both his traumatic childhood and his longtime contention that his confession was coerced and he wasn’t guilty of the crimes that drove a judge to doom him to die behind bars.

Her effort paid off, a judge agreed to reduce his sentence, and Bell walked out of prison on June 28, 2020, 30 years and one day after he was first incarcerated. Bell said he now regards Sellitti as a sister, and he’s hopeful her approach to public defense will help countless others like him.

“She will bring something that has been sorely missing, and that is a remembrance of humanity,” Bell said. “The role has historically been narrowly defined, and Jenn has consistently pushed against those narrow definitions to include the whole person in her representation.”

For her part, Sellitti said her work with Bell is a peek into how she hopes to reinvent an office that — with 55,000 cases last year — essentially is the biggest criminal defense firm statewide. The office also represents children who have been abused, neglected, or removed from their homes, parents in child-welfare proceedings, and people committed for mental health treatment.

“Everything I do, and everything our office will do moving forward, puts clients at the center,” she said.

Bell, she added, “did more for me than I ever did for him.”

“Sabir taught me that there is power in vulnerability. He reminded me that public defenders are doing their best work when they pour themselves into a case without ever knowing if it will be enough,” she said. “He showed me that the greatest gift we can give the people we represent is to receive their stories and reflect them back to the people with the power to help change their lives.”

Taking aim at caseloads and junk science

A Ringwood native whose parents were educators, Sellitti didn’t take a straight path into law.

She studied public relations at Boston University, hoping to turn her childhood love of dancing into a career in marketing for theater or dance companies. Instead, she went into high-tech PR.

That didn’t last long because “I didn’t want to sell computers to people anymore,” she said. So she went to law school nights and eventually became a public defender in Massachusetts. After four years there, she returned to New Jersey in February 2007 to work in the Office of the Public Defender’s largest office in Essex County. About half of her cases were murders.

“It was a great place to be not only in terms of being somewhere you could try a lot of cases, but also in handling these serious and complex cases,” she said.

She was promoted in 2014 to head the office’s Middlesex County trial region and moved in 2016 to the office’s Trenton headquarters to become director of training, a new position.

When she takes over the top job from the retiring Joseph Krakora, she hopes to expand training for the office’s 1,200 employees, which includes 620 attorneys. She aims, too, to make the office more “publicly engaged” by having a stronger presence in the community and in the Statehouse.

She also plans to restructure the office to reduce excessive caseloads, pointing to a recent study that found public defenders nationally handle three times as many cases as they can effectively handle. Such a weighty workload has even shaped Sellitti’s personal pastimes — yoga and scuba diving.

“It’s a problem in our industry that lawyers don’t make time for breaks or focusing on something else. But the nice thing about being on a boat is this forced detachment; we go very far offshore. If I was anywhere near land, I’d be on my phone checking email,” said Sellitti, who has a captain’s license.

Jennifer Sellitti, pictured upper right beside a military tank, dived the wreckage in February 2023 of the San Francisco Maru, a Japanese ship that sank during the Allies’ Operation Hailstone in 1944 in a lagoon in Micronesia. The depth to the deck was 160 feet. (Photo by Joe Mazraani)

In New Jersey, public defenders’ workloads have risen in recent years in part because of a law Gov. Phil Murphy signed in 2020 that requires all law enforcement officers to wear body cameras, Sellitti said.

“We love what Governor Murphy did with the body cameras and making everybody wear body cameras,” Sellitti said. “But when I was handling cases, the only cases you had body cameras on were murder cases or really serious cases. Right now, every single case has body camera footage. So the new trend across the country is weighting cases according to the types of evidence, the complexity of the case, and the seriousness of the charge, and adjusting caseloads accordingly.”

Sellitti also aims to create specialized units that focus on forensic science, immigration, and the interdisciplinary links between the office’s child welfare work and criminal defense of adults and youth.

Forensic science, in particular, has proven to be an evolving challenge for public defenders, as investigators increasingly rely on developing science, including DNA, cell phone forensics, and facial recognition technology to solve crimes, she said.

“In the last couple of years, the lawyers in our office have really tried to examine the reliability of this science, to say reliable science can come in, junk science has to stay out — and if we don’t know whether it’s reliable or junk, we have to keep it out,” she said.

Employing attorneys, investigators, and support staff who specialize in various areas of the law will better serve the office as it handles cases “that are far more complex than ever before,” as well as help cut costs by eliminating the need to hire outside experts, she said.

But arguably most importantly, Sellitti plans to implement a “modern, holistic defense model that puts the client’s stated goals at the center of our work.”

Such an approach has been proven to reduce sentence lengths, racial disparities in prisons, and recidivism, she added.

“People come to us with a multitude of problems, some of which are legal in nature and some of which are not, and the trend nationally has been to try to provide services not just for the case that is in court but the collateral problems too, so that the person is in a better position when they have resolved their criminal case than they were before,” Sellitti said.

Bell credits that philosophy with ensuring he succeeded when he left prison. He now works as an asset manager for the largest nonprofit developer of affordable housing in New York City. He also started a nonprofit called Youth Function Over Form to help youth who age out of the foster care system.

“Jenn was instrumental in making sure that I had housing and employment opportunities, making sure that I was going to be able to finish my college degree. She put on a drive for me to make sure that I had an apartment that was fully furnished and I had clothes to wear,” Bell said. “She took on the role of a lawyer, a social worker, a sister, a counselor, and almost any other thing that I could possibly need in that moment. You know that old adage, ‘When we know better, we do better?’ That’s what she will do in that office.”

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.