We sat down with Nellie L. King, the owner of The Law Offices of Nellie L. King, P.A. in West Palm Beach, Florida, and the newly installed president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers to discuss her new role, her plans for the organization and her outlook on the criminal legal system.
AALM: What drew you to the practice of criminal defense?
NLK: Criminal defense lawyers not only defend the Constitution, they advance the plight of the forgotten, the judged, the disadvantaged. In this way, helping the criminally accused is values centered. From a young age, helping others was part of my upbringing. My mother always saw the good in people, or at least the ability for people to put the bad behind them. When I later attended Mary Washington College, I was elected president of the Honor Council where I oversaw student conduct trials. This experience piqued my interest in due process, access to counsel, and fair punishment issues. Criminal defense was a natural fit for me after those experiences.
AALM: What are your goals for your term at the helm of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers?
NLK: One issue I have chosen to focus my tenure on is police misconduct and accountability. We live in a country where law enforcement has become militarized, training has resulted in warriors patrolling the streets, and taking an oath to tell the truth has become optional among many rank and file officers responsible for seeking justice.
NACDL’s Full Disclosure Project represents but one tangible example of what can be done to ensure that officers are held accountable and that communities are made safer at the hands of those charged with keeping the peace. The project consists of an open-source database which hosts information on officers such as employment and internal affairs records, social media postings, trial and deposition transcripts, civil lawsuits, and other intel/public records.
This information is critically important to expose what officers are doing in the field, what they have done in the past, and whether they should attain future employment by a different department when they leave an agency under questionable circumstances.
Transparency is the hallmark of integrity so this is something everyone should want.
In addition to this initiative, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs, which overturned Roe v. Wade, has monumental impact on the work of criminal defense lawyers. The arrest and prosecution of women, medical providers, and employers (including law firms), represents the most recent politically motivated custodial roundup in an already overburdened system.
Before the decision, NACDL was ahead of the curve, having published a groundbreaking report, Abortion In America: How Legislative Overreach is Turning Reproductive Rights into Criminal Wrongs, in August 2021. After the decision, NACDL immediately formed the Criminalization of Reproductive Rights Task Force comprised of legal, academic, and policy thought leaders and changemakers from around the country. NACDL stands at the ready to provide education and assistance to its members and affiliates on these issues in all 50 states.
Lastly, in response to aggressive campaigns in Florida and other states to criminalize and prosecute individuals with a criminal record who registered to vote, many of whom believed their voting rights had been restored, I have made the assault on the right to vote, and the voter suppression intent behind these politically motivated initiatives, a priority. To this end, I have authorized the formation of a Criminalization of Voting Rights Committee to aid in the organization, training, and mobilization of the criminal defense bar around the issue of voting rights violations. This effort is also aimed at assisting public defense offices which will be impacted by the criminalization of voting rights. NACDL will seek to collaborate with other entities with similar purpose in order to address what will be a long-term fight for voting and racial equity in the criminal legal system.
AALM: How has your experience as a past president of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers prepared you for this role?
NLK: My experience as a past president of FACDL prepared me to take on this national leadership role because Florida is a standout jurisdiction in the criminal legal space, but not in a good way. The fight for justice in Florida is like trench warfare. Starting with the assault on basic democratic ideals through executive and legislative power grabs, no strategy or manner of overreach is off limits — blatant nullification and suppression of voting rights; the State’s refusal to implement voter-enacted Amendment 4 (the felon voter restoration bill); the Governor’s removal of Tampa’s elected State Attorney for exercising his First Amendment right to speak the will of his constituency; unapologetically racist redistricting efforts which disenfranchise minority voters; and the prosecutions of formerly incarcerated individuals operating under the impression their voting rights have been restored all represent reasons why Florida is in the throes of a crisis. And, this list just centers on issues attendant to voting and the will of the electorate: there is much more.
Florida has politicized criminal justice so that fearmongering instead of facts is used to justify arrests, prosecutions, and funding of the expanding prison industrial complex. Perhaps most shocking, despite a growing number of folks freed due to wrongful convictions (some of whom, like James Bain, spent more than three decades in prison for crimes they did not commit), Florida refuses to implement meaningful law enforcement or prosecutorial reform to curb systemic flaws and the human rights abuses which follow. The list goes on, the fight is a serious one, and NACDL is leading the way for its state affiliates to make serious changes.
AALM: What is one of the biggest challenges you see facing the criminal legal system?
NLK: One of the biggest challenges facing the criminal legal system is the failure to prioritize public defenders in state budgets despite the critical role public defenders play in the system. The Sixth Amendment guarantees citizens appointment of counsel when they face criminal charges and cannot afford private representation. Public defenders handle crushing caseloads, carry enormous student debt, and yet get paid the least.
AALM: How is the NACDL and its members working toward a better criminal legal system? How do you hope to improve that impact?
NLK: NACDL serves as a leader, alongside diverse coalitions, in identifying and reforming flaws and inequities in the criminal legal system, and redressing systemic racism, and ensuring that its members and others in the criminal defense bar are fully equipped to serve all accused persons at the highest level.
NACDL members defend the poor, the racially targeted, the mentally ill, the substance addicted, and those condemned to death. But, as guardians of sacred liberties, I believe the role of the criminal defense lawyer transcends the legal issues attendant to each individual client and the elements of each particular case. Criminal defense lawyers have an obligation to investigate, expose, litigate, lobby, publicize, and eliminate systemic abuses, in whatever form, that touch upon the criminal legal system and via whatever tactic necessary to fight the dilution and tarnishment of the Constitution and the rights of our clients, particularly clients of color and disadvantaged means.
AALM: Are there any upcoming events within the NACDL that you’re looking forward to?
NLK: NACDL will host its Fifth Annual Race Matters seminar in Montgomery, Alabama, September 7-9. This event is special because it will feature tours of The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration and The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, both acclaimed projects of Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative. The museum, “the nation’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved Black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color burdened with contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence,” is impactful. It is particularly important for defense lawyers to experience these sites because of the undeniable and pervasive role race plays in the criminal legal system.
AALM: What are some lessons you’ve learned from past leaders within the NACDL?
NLK: NACDL has been led by a veritable who’s who of the criminal defense bar: Barry Scheck, Judy Clarke, Albert Krieger, Nancy Hollander, to name just a few. A number of past presidents reached out to me after my installation to share their support and wisdom, but one piece of advice from a mentor within the organization stuck with me. As only the eighth woman to lead NACDL in its 64-year history, she advised me to lead without apologies, set reasonable goals because I only have one year to serve in the role, and to forge the way for more women to attain this esteemed position within the practice.
AALM: You received the 2022 Harriette S. Glasner Award from the ACLU of Florida Palm Beach County Chapter. Of the work you for which you were honored, what are you most proud of accomplishing?
NLK: I was honored beyond measure to receive the Harriette S. Glasner Award from the ACLU. I am a staunch advocate of transparency and accountability in government so being recognized for my work in the area of public records preservation and production is quite meaningful. Public access to the records, inner workings, and machinations of government represents a cornerstone of democracy and must be zealously guarded against restrictions on access or attempts to govern in secrecy. You cannot change what you cannot see.
AALM: Tell us about a case that changed the way you practice or shifted your perspective.
NLK: My cases defending the mentally ill charged with homicide have been the most impactful on me personally and professionally. The failure to provide care for the mentally ill is inhumane, dangerous to the public at large, and unbefitting a country with the resources of the United States. Florida, in particular, ranks a dismal 49 out of 50 states for access to mental health care. As a result, jails have become the primary treatment provider for the mentally ill. Law enforcement lacks skills, training, and understanding of this human frailty and arrests of the mentally ill are often unnecessary and violent.
AALM: What legacy do you hope to establish for yourself in your practice? In your participation within the legal community? Within your community as a whole?
NLK: As far as practice legacy, I hope to be considered a mentor to young lawyers, particularly women lawyers. Among the legal community, I aspire to be an outspoken advocate for chiming the bell to service. I believe all lawyers are responsible, no matter what area of law they practice, for ensuring that the Constitution is applied with equal force and measure to all citizens. Even if one does not practice criminal defense, I encourage the civil bar to donate to causes that support justice, to volunteer to take a clemency or compassionate release case because the person is deserving of mercy, or to lobby their local politicians to enact reasonable criminal justice bills.
In my community, I aim to educate folks about the realities of the criminal legal system and to assist in fundraising initiatives which move the ball for the underprivileged and the wrongfully convicted. In addition to financially supporting NACDL’s Foundation for Criminal Justice, I chair a local comedy fundraiser for the Innocence Project of Florida and I support causes which improve the plight of the homeless.
AALM: What goals do you still hope to accomplish within your career? What’s the next milestone for you?
NLK: My career goals remain the same as when I started in the practice 25 years ago: to defend each case with passion, skill, and empathy and to treat each client as if they were my own child, brother, or parent. I also aim to leave the criminal legal space different than when I entered it all those years ago.
The criminal legal system represents a tough place to practice because you are dealing with someone’s future in the most serious of contexts: prison or, in some cases, the death chamber. The U.S. locks up more people per capita than any other nation, with nearly 2 million people behind bars in this country. Considering that the U.S. has another 3.7 million people on probation or parole, and it becomes clear that our policies around mass incarceration and the gutting of minority communities need to be reconsidered. Fighting for justice – around the ideal that how we treat people at their most vulnerable moment defines us as a nation – is attainable if we fight as a collective.
The next milestone would be to realize measurable gains in NACDL law enforcement reform and accountability priorities and to end – or at least slow – mass incarceration trends.
AALM: Tell us about Nellie outside of the office. What do you do to unwind?
NLK: I enjoy tennis, boating, and trying out recipes in my kitchen with my daughter, Ginny. I also like to travel and entertain friends at home with my husband, John Wendel.