Defending their rights
LIVE OAK, Jan 18, 2013 (Suwannee Democrat - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Lee Peters Jr. may have retired as the assistant public defender for the Third Judicial Circuit and division chief after 24 years. But he isn't slowing down. Peters was hired by former Public Defender Dennis Roberts (see related story, this page) when he took office in 1989 and remained on staff until Roberts' recent retirement.
"I came into office with Dennis and I left with Dennis," Peters said.
In January of 1968, Peters began attending Florida State University and graduated in June of 1971. He then went to work for the Federal Department of Law Enforcement as an agent with the Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives division.
"When I was with ATF, I spent much time in the courtroom and got an understanding of the law. That's what lit the fire," he said.
After 10 years with ATF, Peters enrolled at the University of Florida's School of Law in 1982. Two years later, Peters graduated and accepted his first position as an assistant state attorney. Peters was responsible for handling cases in four counties including Lafayette County where he met Roberts.
"While I was working as an assistant state attorney, Dennis was an assistant public defender. I often opposed Dennis in Mayo and that's how we met," he laughed.
When Roberts was elected as the public defender in 1989, Peters was the first person Roberts hired outside of the State Attorney's Office. "That's when it came full circle," said Peters.
Since Peters began practicing law, he has been involved in about 2,500 cases, not counting simple or juvenile cases. Peters has stood before a jury over 200 times, 190 of those under the office of public defender.
Peters admits that his success in the courtroom stems from his ability to communicate effectively. "When you're standing before the jury, you've got to have something that they can wrap their minds around," he said.
"The public defender system we have today stems from the Wainwright vs. Gideon case of 1963," Peters said. "In our small corner of the world, bad things are going to happen to good people. And if the government is going to take away your liberty, you have the right to have an attorney defend you."
For the past 24 years, Peters and Roberts have worked hand-in-hand defending people in the seven counties the public defender's office serves, including Hamilton, Lafayette and Suwannee -- serving those who typically couldn't afford an attorney.
"I'm going to miss working with the people that I've worked with for so many years. Dennis Roberts is the best boss I've ever had in my lifetime," Peters said.
Peters officially retired from the state of Florida on Jan. 1, but has no plans of slowing down.
"I had a week off, and then my son (local attorney Ryan Peters) called me and asked me if I could go to Lake Butler and handle a criminal case for him, and I've been on the road ever since," he laughed. Peters plans to continue working at his son's law firm at the Live Oak and Lake City offices.
Peters comes from a military family and has defended people's rights both in the courtroom and on the battlefield.
"When I was in high school, students were allowed to join the military while they were still in school, so I volunteered to join the military before they did the draft," said Peters. He joined the United States Navy Reserves in 1964, and was deployed to Vietnam in 1965 for two years. He ended his military career as a major military police corp in 1995 after giving 31 years of service, 15 years in the Navy Reserves followed by 16 years in the US Army Reserves.
All three of his children, Tammy, Lee III and Ryan, have served in the US military. "I'm very proud of my children," said Peters. "Only one percent of the population serves in the military and I'm thankful for my children, and all of those who fight for our freedom."
Since Peters is now officially retired, he hopes to spend more time working with the American Legion.
"They are a very active group and they dedicate themselves to helping veterans. As I said, only one percent of the population goes into the military. We require these young people to go to war," said Peters. "And when they get damaged and they come home, we seem to forget about them. I want to help that one percent."
"You got a choice," he said. "You can wear out or rust out. I plan to keep going."
Even though Peters' status says he's retired, he will continue to be a warrior for the people.
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