Two poster-size covers of the 1950s comic book series "Public Defender in Action" decorate a wall of Rick Waller's office.
From his desk, the 49-year-old leader of the Macon Circuit Public Defender's Office can see the Bibb County Courthouse, where his team of attorneys helps poor clients make life-changing decisions nearly every day.
He said people often ask, "How do you represent those people?"
Not just because they have rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, but also because "I'm no different than my defendants," Waller said.
"I grew up in a middle class household with two parents that loved and cared about me and encouraged me to get an education and to do right. If I didn't have that, I can't say I wouldn't be right where my clients are."
Whether it's shoplifting candy in high school or hurting a loved one, "none of us are the worst thing we ever did," Waller said. "There's more to you than that. And there's more to my clients than that."
Waller admits that public defense work wasn't his first choice when he graduated from Mercer University's Walter F. George School of Law.
He opened his own law office and handled cases spanning the spectrum from criminal to civil and domestic issues.
In those days, before there was a state-operated system to provide attorneys for defendants regardless of their ability to pay, members of the local bar were appointed to represent people charged with crimes who couldn't afford a lawyer.
After handling a number of indigent cases, Waller developed a desire to help people in those cases, and he took a job at the Houston County Public Defender's Office.
Houston County's office, funded by the county, was operating before Georgia opened similar offices throughout the state.
Longtime Houston County public defender Terry Everett described Waller as an employee willing to "go the extra mile," who could be trusted "no matter what."
Everett, who left the office in 2007 after nearly 20 years, described Waller as a "consensus builder" who had a knack for calming tense situations.
He helped guide younger attorneys, sometimes doing so without it seeming like he was telling them what to do, she said.
One of those attorneys was William Noland, a Macon attorney at the Childs & Noland firm who worked at the Houston County office with Waller.
"Rick was a mentor to me during that time and was always willing to take time away from his busy caseload to answer my questions and help me with my cases and clients," Noland recalled.
Soon after the state created the current public defender system in 2004, Waller applied to join the Macon Circuit office, which was directed by Lee Robinson, a former Macon mayor. The office represents indigent Bibb, Crawford and Peach county residents.
In short measure, he became Robinson's chief assistant, a post he held until Robinson's death in November, when Waller was named interim director.
Waller was chosen from a pool of applicants as the office's new leader in January.
In his new job, Waller has an open door policy, said Mark Beberman, the office's new chief assistant.
He said the transition has been smooth.
"Rick is a good lawyer and a good leader and a good person," Beberman said.
Everett said leading a public defender's office is a job with many challenges and extra responsibilities.
The job -- both that of the boss and of the assistant public defenders -- can be a thankless one.
"Clients often think you've sold out. ... You win one case only to have 7,000 more looking you in the face," Everett said.
"Without the right leader, it can be a problem."
The leader is both a "gladiator" and a cheerleader at the same time, Everett said.
"I think Rick will do a great job."
GOALS FOR THE FUTURE
Waller said he has several goals aimed at improving the efficiency of the office, services to indigent defendants and the justice system as a whole.
He said he wants to close the gap in starting pay between public defenders and prosecutors in hopes of decreasing turnover and the size of attorneys' case-loads.
Starting pay for public defenders in the Macon Circuit ranges from $41,000 to $45,000, lagging behind prosecutors' $56,000 starting pay.
"We're lucky if we can keep them two to three years," he said. "Typically by the time we get them up and running and ready to try a case, they go somewhere else and make more money."
It's not unheard of for a case to pass through as many as six attorneys' hands before it's resolved, lengthening the amount of time it takes for the case to go through the court system.
"The court can't address the case if it's not ready," he said.
What's more, the turnover and slowdown results in public defenders' carrying high caseloads, said Waller, who has continued to keep a small number of cases since his promotion.
He said he also plans to champion the early intervention program that Robinson argued for years that the circuit needs. The program would involve some cases being resolved early, as early as within 60 days, by plea bargains.
In his position for a little more than a month, Waller already has expanded services previously provided on Saturdays at Macon's Daybreak shelter.
People in need of those services now can visit the Public Defender's Office in the BB&T building on Second Street anytime the office is open.
To contact writer Amy Leigh Womack, call 744-4398 or find her on Twitter@awomackmacon.