The report was triggered by concerns from prosecutors in Jefferson County, who noticed the lawyer was not opening police reports and other evidence files.

By Conrad Wilson (OPB)

A public defender in Central Oregon failed to meaningfully represent roughly 100 clients in Crook and Jefferson counties between 2017 and 2020, according to a report released Thursday by the Oregon Justice Resource Center.

As a result, people charged with crimes and unable to afford their own lawyer were left to navigate Oregon’s criminal justice system without an attorney to carry out the most basic functions of criminal defense.

Jason Munn now faces a two-year suspension of his law license, a decision he’s appealed to the Oregon Supreme Court. During an administrative trial last year, Munn said he didn’t have a disciplinary record and that, at the time he was accused of not doing enough for his clients, he struggled with family problems and alcohol abuse, the report states.

Reached Thursday, Munn said he had not seen the report. He said he’s in recovery for alcohol abuse.

“I know they’ve been milking this for four years,” Munn said of the Oregon Justice Resource Center. “I don’t know what they’re trying to get out of the report except some money from the state.”

Concerns surrounding Munn’s performance as a public defender surfaced after local prosecutors noticed he was not opening some documents, such as police reports, or was only partially reviewing the evidence against his clients before advising them whether they should plead guilty. Public defenders are required to review all discovery and independently investigate the evidence behind criminal charges before giving their clients advice, according to rules outlined by the Oregon State Bar.

“We did not find evidence that Mr. Munn conducted independent investigations in his cases,” the Oregon Justice Resource Center’s Brittney Plesser said during a news conference Thursday. “In fact, he explicitly stated that he did not believe an investigation was necessary in many of his cases.”

In 2020, the state’s then Office of Public Defense Services contracted with the Center for $320,000 to conduct an audit of Munn’s cases.

Prosecutors in Jefferson County filed a complaint about Munn with the Oregon State Bar in 2020. According to the report, prosecutors “ultimately identified 96 cases in which Mr. Munn had not downloaded or reviewed complete discovery,” the report states. “In 37 of those cases, Mr. Munn had failed to obtain most of all of the case discovery. In at least two of those cases, the client was sentenced to prison.”

The Oregon Justice Resource Center, a nonprofit that advocates for criminal justice issues, spent three years reviewing Munn’s closed cases for “relevant legal and factual issues” he should have raised. Attorneys at the nonprofit examined Munn’s cases for failures that could form a basis for some kind of relief. Despite filing petitions for post-conviction relief, expungement and one motion to set aside a conviction, the Oregon Justice Resource Center concluded that there are too few options available for clients who fall into situations where their attorneys cause this level of harm.

“Oregon has no way to provide meaningful relief to groups of people affected by systemic harms,” the report states.

In one case, the report notes Munn’s closing statement at trial consisted of just three sentences.

In another, Munn failed to tell his client he could be deported if convicted.

“The real-world impact of this failure is tragic,” the report states. “At least one client was deported to Mexico after his conviction … The client disappeared. His family believes he was murdered.”

Munn told OPB he disputes those allegations and that he did advise his client of the potential consequences.

During the news conference, Plesser said Munn also lacked the support to handle a large caseload.

“Without these tools, an attorney can easily become negligent in their handling of cases,” Plesser said. “The way in which we received his files gave us some insight into his own organizational process. The files came in two plastic bins, a trash bag and a stack, and they were not organized according to client matter.”

Jessica Kampfe, executive director of the Oregon Public Defense Commission, said the report highlights the importance of a well-funded, transparent public defense system; Oregon’s system has undergone structural change in recent years.

“This investigation reviewed public defense representation under Oregon’s former pay-by-case system, which was deemed unconstitutional by the 6th Amendment Center,” Kampfe said in a statement to OPB. “(The Oregon Public Defense Commission) has transitioned away from this system. Now, attorneys are compensated for their work based on the percentage of their time devoted to public defense.”

For years, Oregon has struggled to provide defense attorneys to everyone prosecutors have charged with crimes who cannot afford a lawyer, as required under the U.S. and Oregon constitutions.

As of Wednesday, more than 2,400 people charged with crimes in Oregon did not have a lawyer. Of those, 87 were in custody, according to the Oregon Judicial Department.

Last year, Oregon lawmakers passed legislation to overhaul the public defense system, though there’s no easy fix on the horizon. Many of the changes under Senate Bill 337 are expected to take years to implement.