Garren Joins 27B Public Defender’s Office As Felony Defender
NCAJ Criminal Defense Section Chair Allison Garren has joined the Judicial District 27B Public Defender’s Office as a felony defender, serving Cleveland and Lincoln counties. Garren was featured in a Rising Star profile, reprinted below, in the spring 2021 edition of Trial Briefs.
Allison Garren brought an impressive resume back home with her to Western North Carolina, following an academic career that included social justice work on three continents. She also brought a passion for international human rights that continues to shape her practice today.
Garren’s time as an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill included an internship at the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration in Cape Town, South Africa. Her law school clerkships included work with the Boston civil rights firm of Howard Friedman, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice in Durham, Greater Boston Legal Services and with the Trial Chambers of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague, Netherlands. Garren earned her law degree from Northeastern University School of Law and holds master’s in Public Health from Tufts University School of Medicine.
Garren practiced from 2014 to 2022 with Teddy, Meekins & Talbert, focusing on criminal defense, family law and Social Security Disability. In 2020, Garren earned her specialization in North Carolina Criminal Law from the North Carolina State Bar. Here, she answers some questions us about her background and her career.
How does your experience working on international human rights issues and social justice issues inform your work in Western North Carolina?
An international human rights framework pushes a practitioner to understand that human rights are inalienable and interconnected. Our job is to recognize where some of those rights intersect and how issues surrounding one right may compound access to another. For example, the United States is always lauded as a beacon for political rights, but we have been slow to embrace economic justice. You can see this in courtrooms on a regular basis for clients living in poverty who cannot access phones, are transient, and as a result are often punished more harshly when they cannot afford to engage the system in the way other citizens are able. We are seeing this very discussion play out across the country as stakeholders discuss the need for bail/bond reform. The question (one of many) becomes how can we guarantee true due process within an economically unequal landscape?
It is often international influences that can help move us as a country in a more humane direction. There are great discussions on the international pressure that influenced the Brown v. Board of Education decision, that in turn helped galvanize other countries to implement similar decisions/policies. International models also show us other ways to address human rights violations, one of the best examples being South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. There are also many other countries with much more robust restorative justice systems in place, where punishment is not the main focus, but essentially “How do we make things right?”
On a day-to-day basis, these frameworks help me remember that simply because something is not perceived as an issue locally, does not mean that it isn’t grounded in something much bigger, and that gives me that little extra inspiration to keep pushing.
What is the primary focus of your practice?
I currently practice in family law, Social Security disability cases, and criminal defense. However, my passion is for indigent clients, particularly in criminal defense. I take great pride in trying to level the playing field for court appointed cases.
Was there a single person or occurrence that caused you to consider a career as a lawyer?
My parents were both teachers and believed that education was a great equalizer. I channeled that same idea of wanting to give others a fair shake into my practice of law. I wasn’t completely certain it was what I wanted to do, though. I took two years off from school and worked as an AmeriCorps Member in Chapel Hill before law school. One of many eye-opening experiences during that time was conducting writing workshops at homeless shelters. Through those experiences I simply felt a calling to do more, to increase my skill set as an advocate. I am still able to help people tell their stories, but now serve as their literal voice in court at times, which is incredibly humbling.
What career accomplishments are you most proud of so far?
My specialization status in state criminal law in 2020 would be one of them, but that’s because it reflects a lot of work preceding it. The application process requires you to list substantial cases you’ve completed, which was overwhelming, but also validating as a young, female criminal defense attorney to see all the work I’ve done in my (now) seven years of criminal defense work.
I’m most proud of my jury trial work, probably because it feels like those cases take everything out of you as you eat, sleep and breathe the case while the trial is ongoing. For me, it’s also when as an attorney you get to flex the performative muscle of criminal defense in opening statements and closing arguments. I live for a good closing argument: the word play, the pacing of speech, the visuals, all of it; it’s an art.
The Superior Court trial work I am most proud of has been for my court appointed clients, which truthfully makes up the bulk of it. I have had seven not guilty verdicts on all counts, another trial that was recently reversed by the Court of Appeals, and another where my client rather than being convicted of a felony where he qualified as a habitual felon, was convicted of a misdemeanor. Those were all court-appointed cases, and I get great joy out of letting the presiding judge know that, no in fact, I was not retained. As it should be.
Is there a case you can tell us about that you are particularly proud of?
One of my favorite jury trials was one where a client had admitted to law enforcement on two different occasions a firearm was his, and he was charged with possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. We won, though, because his stories were totally inconsistent and perhaps because the firearm at issue was a tiny Derringer, and it fit in the palm of my hand. During closing I simply showed it to the jury and let them make their own conclusions. The jury believed it belonged to the female in the home who was also a convicted felon who I argued my client was protecting, hence the two different versions of his “confession.” In a profession focused on language, we often forget the power of an image.
What do you value most about your NCAJ membership?
The wealth of information at your fingertips online within the listservs and among members; the willingness for other attorneys to help one another is unmatched among any other professional organization, not to mention the sheer fire with which as a whole, I believe NCAJ members defend clients. It’s inspiring.
What have you learned so far about the practice of law that you would pass on as advice to a lawyer who just passed the bar this year?
You are the only person who can take care of yourself. Prioritize it. Set boundaries, and let work be a part of your life, not all consuming. You serve your clients and any cause best, by taking care of yourself.
I would also say to those practicing criminal defense, to never forget what a privilege it is to walk behind prison or jail walls to speak with a client. It is also a great responsibility to be the tether connecting your client in custody to the outside world. If you aren’t sure what your local jail is like, ask to tour it and have a better understanding of what your client experiences. It will motivate you to move a case expeditiously when bond reductions are not possible.
For female attorneys: Take up the physical space you earned in front of the bar, and always use the time you need to say what you need to say.
You grew up in Rutherford County. What drew you back home?
I came back to Western North Carolina to be with my family before my mom passed away. I like to think that experience has helped me to be an empathetic listener to my clients experiencing illness or death in a family. The sheer volume of cases in court often render these life-altering moments to one-line statements at sentencing. I strive to give those stories the time and respect they deserve outside of court.
Describe a perfect day off.
If I wasn’t traveling in another country…
It would be a combination of something grounding: being outside hiking or swimming (or both) paired with something moving and inspiring such as a theater show, live music or dancing, along with dinner with loved ones. I wouldn’t protest if a bookstore or library was thrown in the mix either.