Attorney Sean F. Kelly stood in New London's busy arraignment court one day this week with another client who couldn't afford an attorney.
As each case was called, Kelly provided the judge with information about the person behind the criminal charge, sometimes citing a number of dependent children at home, a job or a limited criminal history in an attempt to secure a lower bond.
Other times, he mentioned a client's substance abuse or psychiatric problem and suggested a program that might be helpful.
Kelly, 43, of Deep River, a congenial sort whose default facial expression is a smile, was recently promoted to supervisor of the public defender's office at the courthouse known as Geographical Area 10. He has been doing public defender work for 17 years but says his education in this area of law began much sooner.
His father, Richard F. Kelly, recently retired after a long career as a public defender and supervisor in Middletown and Hartford.
"I learned about public defender work before I learned what employment was," Kelly said.
His brother, Kevin Kelly, is also a public defender, in New Orleans.
Kelly said he wants people to understand the role of a public defender.
"I'm asked all the time, 'How can you represent THOSE people?''' he said. "The perception has to change. Those people are you and me. They are the community, the state."
On any given day, Kelly is standing beside somebody whose life has been derailed by substance abuse, mental illness or any number of societal problems. He said most people know someone in their position, and many of the cases have a positive outcome. Clients get the help they need. They get sober, resolve their legal problems. Families reunite.
"There are amazing stories that take place in the courthouse every day," Kelly said.
Kelly is replacing Thomas J. Haley, a well-regarded public defender who recently retired after 35 years on the job. The public defender staff at G.A. 10 includes five attorneys, an investigator, a social worker and a secretary.
Judge Kevin P. McMahon, who presided at the New London court for years, said he recommended Kelly to replace Haley.
"I think he's going to be very good at it," McMahon said. "He's always prepared and puts the extra work in. He goes the extra yard."
Bruce A. Sturman, chief of public defenders in the New London judicial district, said Kelly, who competed with some of his office mates and with outsiders for the position, deserved the job.
"He's going to be a great leader up there," Sturman said.
Kelly also has the endorsement of Supervisory Assistant State's Attorney Michael E. Kennedy, who is his counterpart in the prosecutor's office.
"He knows the law, and he's an articulate advocate for his clients," Kennedy said.
Kelly received his bachelor's degree from Providence College and his law degree from Western New England College School of Law. He was hired as a public defender investigator in Enfield in 1995 and became a deputy public defender in Manchester in 2001. He came to New London in 2004 and served as the interim supervisor in the Norwich public defender's office for several months in 2007 and 2008.
Kelly is married and has three sons. When he's not working, he said he's coaching Little League and spending time with his family and friends.
"It's been an absolutely rewarding occupation," Kelly said. "There's an incredible amount of trust the community puts in our role."