Q&A: Criminal defense attorney Jessa Nicholson Goetz talks about her passion for the rights of the accused

By KATELYN FERRAL •Feb 12, 2017

Jessa Nicholson Goetz has a distinct view of Wisconsin's criminal justice system from her side of the courtroom.

At 34, she is one of few female trial attorneys in the state working on sensitive crimes cases. The Madison attorney represents people accused of crimes some see as the most unsavory: sexual assaults, child abuse and neglect, and homicides. She has worked on several high-profile cases that have received national attention and is passionate about defending the rights of the accused, and advancing science and an understanding of mental illness in the criminal justice system. She even has the defense and counsel clause of the 6th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution tattooed on her back.

In 2013, she, along with colleague Nick Gansner, represented Andrew Steele, a former Dane County Sheriff's deputy, who was acquitted in a jury trial in the murders of his wife and sister-in-law. The jury found him not guilty by mental defect because of his amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, disease.

In 2014, she represented Chad Chritton, who was sentenced to five years in prison for abusing and neglecting his daughter. He was acquitted of a false imprisonment charge.

She is currently representing Alec Cook, a University of Wisconsin-Madison student, who faces 21 criminal charges including felony stalking and sexual assault of several women. The case is headed to trial.

Nicholson came to Madison to attend law school at the University of Wisconsin and is a partner in the firm Nicholson, Gansner & Otis downtown.

Before becoming an attorney, she worked at the Rape Crisis Center as a night advocate and worked a crisis phone line. She also did some legal advocacy there, helping clients file restraining orders. The Cap Times sat down with Nicholson to ask how she approaches her work and what she's learned about the criminal justice system since becoming an attorney more than a decade ago.

What drew you to criminal defense and sensitive crimes in particular?

I really like people-based law. I don't like document review, I don't like transactional stuff. I like being able to interact with people and I like telling stories.

One of the great things about trial law is you get to tell somebody's story. Criminal work always appealed to me more than civil work. I would tell you that's because I'm fiercely patriotic and believe really strongly in defending the rights of the accused, because I think that's important for all of us. (But) I am a little bit iconoclastic. I am definitely very anti-authoritarian. I tend to buck when it comes to following rules so the defense side made sense to me. I also am a third generation business owner so entrepreneurial stuff, starting a practice, felt right to me because that's sort of the spirit in which I've been brought up.

How do you think defense work affords you a distinct view of the criminal justice system?

I think defense work is more idealistic. I think a good criminal lawyer could try a case from either side. What I think happens a lot when you're a prosecutor is you're only seeing that person you prosecute through the lens of what they're accused of doing. Whereas when you're on the defense side, you get to know the whole person, you get to know their family, you get to know some of the things that motivated the conduct and so I think it makes you a more forgiving person because you understand someone in context. You're not just evaluating them on the worst thing they've been accused of ever having done.

How do you approach criminal defense in the larger context of justice? How are you able to represent people who are portrayed as such monsters in the press?

I deal with sensitive crimes and those tend to be really serious felonies. They tend to be cases that people get very emotional and very passionate about and there is, for better or worse, like it or not, there is an extra element to that because I happen to be a woman who is typically defending men who are accused of committing crimes against women.

I get asked a lot, "You know, you're a business owner, you're in your 30s, you're very career-oriented, everything about you looks like a feminist and yet you're defending people, if they're guilty of what they're accused of, of doing pretty s----y things, to women in particular." I've given that a lot of thought because I do very proudly identify as a feminist and certainly some of the cases I've dealt with, we need to support and protect and believe victims of crime. There is an inherent tension between wanting to support and embrace and create safe spaces for people to report criminal activity and defending the rights of the accused. Where I come down on that is, the same 14th amendment applies to you, applies to me, applies to my male business partners, applies to everybody here. I don't believe it is doing anyone a service to erode the presumption of innocence.

We can create space for healing and space for discussion and space for policy changes outside of the courtroom and I think there are important places to do that. I think that there should be a rape crisis line, there should be services available for victims and for alleged offenders but to me that's a social science question. The presumption of innocence is a legal one and I will always land on the side of protecting all of our rights.

I really do believe that if you don't hold the government to that burden of proof in every single case, you're going down a really dangerous path and it harms all of our constitutional protections. These are serious issues, serious crimes and a lot of the conflict that has come up between victims' rights and the rights of the accused makes it seem as though you can't both respect somebody's ability to feel trauma and heal from that and also ask questions about if that trauma equals proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

I defend a lot of college students. I would say there's a lot of young men who I represent who engage in behaviors that are not desirable and probably contribute to rape culture but participating in sort of outdated or gender stereotyped modes of thinking isn't the same thing as participating in criminal activity. It's easy to try and conflate those two. Where, if we find behavior that we deem undesirable, we seem to want to punish it. Whether it should be in a courtroom or not is a different question.

Do you get a lot of criticism for your work?

I've gotten death threats. I have gotten threats of other type of physical harm. I had someone write me a letter saying they were going to gang rape me so I knew how it felt.

I have had people make appointments when I'm trying high-profile cases. I had somebody make an appointment and pretend to need a lawyer just so they could yell at me for the Chad Chritton case. I get a lot of hate mail ... a lot of anonymous emails. I also have gotten some really supportive calls.

When I tried the Steele case, people from the community would call and tell me about their experience with ALS. I've had people call because they felt they had been falsely accused of a crime and they have identified with a client of mine as they've read about him in the press.

How do you feel about the media's fixation with sensitive crimes cases? Do you feel the press portrays your work fairly?

It's very frustrating because people tend to think, "Oh, defense attorneys, they just want to get people off without regard to justice" and that's not accurate. We want people to have a fair trial and we decided a long time ago as a country that part of a fair trial is that you're presumed innocent unless the state overcomes their burden of proof.

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When you've got headlines that describe my client as a serial rapist or a domestic murderer and there's never been a shred of evidence introduced in court to support that, that's problematic. People get convicted in the press way before they've ever had a trial and that's very hard because there seems to be this interest in making things as scary as possible. I don't understand that. There's something really appealing to the public right now of this "dark, bad force" and the case I have now (the Alec Cook case) is a perfect example of that. Anytime you "other-ize" someone, you're going to have problems when we start to disconnect from people's humanity and that's what we do with criminal defendants.

The stigma of being accused of serious crimes, whether you're culpable or not, follows people around. You can't unring that from people. We've decided there is something really special about sex crimes, we've made that really different than any other crime.

How has your work shaped you personally from when you first started practicing?

I have developed a much thicker skin than I used to have. I was a pretty sensitive person growing up and this is a really confrontational business. That's sort of the nature of the beast. So learning to be comfortable with not always being liked has been a process and a challenge, to realize it's just my job to raise my hand and say,"This is bulls--t."

It used to bother me that people would question my ethics because I was defending someone charged with a murder. Different people can't understand that, and that's fine, but I'm not going to spend all sorts of time changing their mind.

I choose what battles I fight in terms of how women are treated in this profession, the vast majority of my colleagues are still men. There aren't very many women, there are very few that handle the types cases I do.

I've learned to lighten up in some ways and buckle down in others. I think being responsible for someone else's liberty and future and freedom makes it a requirement that you have a certain level of self possession. There's not a lot of room to be unsure of yourself. You really have to trust yourself and be confident in your ability to analyze a situation. I'm a much stronger personality now than when I first started practicing law because I have to be.

I also think that working with criminal defendants does make you a much more forgiving person. I was 21 when I started law school, back then it was a lot of black and white for me: if you commit a transgression, then you should be punished for it.

How has your view of the criminal justice system at large changed?

I've spent so much time in the criminal justice system, statistically speaking, I don't think criminal justice works. I don't think that it prevents crime. I'm much more interested in seeing crime prevented.

I wish we as a society would have a conversation about actually protecting the public rather than engaging in the sort of bloodlust that makes people feel better but doesn't actually help society. I used to think you can understand who somebody is by snapshots of their life. I think it's made me a lot more empathetic and a lot more understanding to people whose world looks really different than mine. It makes you aware of your own privilege.