Matthew Shirk was elected in 2008 to become the public defender in Jacksonville, Florida with the support of police and prosecutors and a promise that, if elected, he would not allow public defenders to accuse police officers of lying. Upon winning, he fired ten senior lawyers in the office, significantly diminishing its ability provide competent representation to poor people accused of crimes. He installed as his chief of homicide a lawyer who had 16 clients on death row and whom courts had found to have provided ineffective representation is several death penalty cases. After two terms, Shirk was defeated in the Republican Primary in 2016 by retired Judge Charlie Cofer, who had spent 18 years in the Public Defender’s Office and then 17 years as a county judge.
Shirk was elected after two veteran public defenders in Jacksonville successfully defended a black youth, Brenton Butler, who was accused of a murder. They won an acquittal, even though an eyewitness identified Butler as the perpetrator and law enforcement officers testified that Butler confessed. The public defenders presented Butler’s testimony that the law enforcement officers beat him and evidence of the bruises on his face from the beating. After Butler’s acquittal, the public defenders even identified the person who actually committed the crime, which further confirmed that Butler’s confession had been coerced. The case is documented in the award-winning film, Murder on a Sunday Morning, directed by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade. The two lawyers who defended Butler were among the ten fired by Shirk when he took office.
Shirk hiring practices came under scrutiny in May, 2013, after he hired two women who worked at the Whisky River nightclub and restaurant as investigators after finding one of the women on social media and considering her attractive, according A. L. Kelly, who resigned as director of investigations because of Shirk’s treatment of the women. Shirk fired them less than a month later, along with an investigator who apparently declined an invitation from Shirk to join him in his shower. The invitation came after she, Shirk and the two women from Whisky River had been doing shots of liquor in Shirk’s office. The two women from Whisky River were hired without going through the official hiring process and fired after Shirk’s wife, Michelle Shirk, visited the office.
The chief of staff of Shirk’s office, Ron Mallett, announced that he would retire two days after a clerical employee in the Public Defender’s Office told the Florida Times-Union it was Mallett who ordered her to delete public records showing Shirk’s wife had an access badge to the public defender office. Mallett said he was acting on instructions from Shirk.