Whether on the football field for Savannah State University or as a voice for a defendant in Chatham County courts, Christopher Middleton makes his presence felt.
The 33-year-old assistant public defender relishes his role as a “voice of the little people,” foregoing a more lucrative job as a private-practice attorney for the grueling task of representing those who cannot afford to hire their own lawyer.”You become vested in that client,” Middleton said during an interview in his somewhat cramped office on East Oglethorpe Avenue.”At the end of the day I leave this office feeling like I accomplished something, made a difference in someone’s life.” Often that day does not end until about 11 p.m.And sometimes he can be found about 2 a.m. meeting with clients at the Chatham County jail, a practice that endears him to the jail staff.
As a public defender, he finds himself carrying about 200 cases on a good day. And not only the client, who by definition is low on resources, but also that client’s family.
“It’s a huge burden to carry,” Middleton said, recalling it was initially hard to balance the job’s commitment requirements.
To maintain that balance, Middleton writes poetry and is learning to play the piano.
And he plays rugby with the Savannah Shamrocks although slowed somewhat by a knee injury suffered in a match in Columbia, S.C.
He recalls while lettering in football for four years at SSU then-university president Carlton Brown would repeatedly identify “Big Chris” to groups as the football player who wrote poems.
“It just absolutely embarrassed me,” he said through a wide grin.
The Charleston, S.C., native turned down scholarship offers from such schools as the University of South Carolina and The Citadel before choosing Savannah State where he lettered for four years as a defensive lineman.
He graduated cum laude from SSU in 2002 with two degrees – mass communications and English literature – then worked briefly at a WSAV-TV as [an] account manager before working as a speechwriter for then-mayor Floyd Adams.
Long johns for education
Adams describes Middleton as “an excellent person with a good personality” who helped do research for some projects as an office aide.
“I sort of had to push him to go to law school in Vermont,” Adams recalled. “I told him to get your long johns and get a good education. … I’m very proud of him.”
Middleton also interned with Chatham County Superior Court Judge James Bass Jr. and his drug court and for Mayor Otis Johnson.
He earned his law degree from Vermont Law School in 2006 and had his sights set on a job with the Boston public defenders office.
Along the way he interned with a public defender’s office in Berkeley County, S.C., and a South Royalton, Vt., legal clinic.
After law school, a friend who was public defender in Cordele referred him to Chatham County Chief Public Defender Michael Edwards.
Within 10 minutes of his interview, Middleton said he was “absolutely sold” calling Edwards “absolutely awesome.”
Edwards said he was sold on Middleton almost immediately.
“He is a natural leader,” Edwards said, crediting Middleton’s football background as carrying over to his professional life.
Middleton’s desire to help others fits perfectly with the local office’s mission of trying to “find ways beyond the courtroom to help our clients and the community at large,” Edwards said.
“That’s his very essence.”
A chessboard set for play sits on the corner of Middleton’s desk.
He will play anyone who dares, explaining he took it up about a month ago.
“Just the nature of our job is like a chess game,” he said.
At least one budding lawyer learned of his tenacity the hard way.
Boone Phillips, a law school student working as a summer intern with Judge Bass, came into Middleton’s office and quickly set to a game of chess.
Middleton recalls that first game – Phillips beat him in five moves.
“I beat him the second time,” Middleton said. “I would not let him leave this office without me winning at least one match.”
When not in the office or courtroom, Middleton busies himself helping others.
He is board chair of AWOL Inc., a group dedicated to providing direction to juveniles trying to rise above troubled streets, and a citizen advocate for Tom Kohler’s nonprofit Chatham-Savannah Citizens Advocacy program.
And he is founder of Omega Psi Phi fraternity’s Holiday Make-over Project to help single mothers with children renovate their homes and provide a Merry Christmas for those who otherwise would go without.
The program helps one family a year to ensure the Christmas providing overwhelms the recipient family, he said.
He also is active in the 100 Black Men of Savannah, a group of men dedicated to providing role models for young blacks en route to adulthood.
Fellow Assistant Public Defender Bill Dowell, a veteran of 37 years practicing law whom Middleton calls “my go-to guy,” said the sky is the limit for Middleton.
“I’ll be very surprised if he’s not a top-notch, high echelon politician or DA or a very, very successful private-practice attorney,” Dowell said. “It’s his choice.”
He said Middleton has a “great rapport with juries right off the bat. He connects with jurors.”
Down the road, Middleton has high aspirations.
“My passion is politics,” Middleton said, adding he wants to run for office, just hasn’t decided at what level or when.
“That’s my goal,” he said.