Emily Wilkey made an uncommon move when she switched from her public defender position to become an assistant prosecutor.
“There are a lot of people at DPA (Department of Public Advocacy) that think you can’t do both,” said Wilkey, who officially started as assistant commonwealth’s attorney Oct. 1. “They can get really upset and offended if you make the switch.”
Wilkey has always wanted to be a prosecutor, but when a job as a public defender opened up in May 2010, she seized the opportunity.
After graduating from the University of Kentucky College of Law in 2009, she worked as a clerk for a year before accepting the public defender position, which gave her cases in Woodford, Scott and Franklin counties.
“It was a position open doing most juvenile work, and I thought that would be a good opportunity to try to make a difference,” Wilkey said.
But in July, she started to think she needed a change, which led her to accept the job as an assistant commonwealth’s attorney.
Wilkey replaced Dana Todd, who worked as an assistant commonwealth’s attorney for 10 years. Todd’s last day in Franklin Circuit Court was Aug. 24.
Wilkey said a juvenile that she had worked with on multiple cases and had become close with was murdered in July, which led to the switch.
“I took that pretty hard, and when that happened I started seriously thinking I needed to make a switch,” she said. “The public defender’s office is a very high case load, and it can become very emotionally draining.”
Switching to prosecution in the same county, however, has it’s own difficulties.
One of the restrictions of the switch includes not being able to work on any cases that involve previous clients for 36 months. Even after that, it still might not be ethical to get involved.
Wilkey also couldn’t accept the new position until resigning as a public defender, which complicated leaving her clients.
“It’s just been a little bit of a mess,” Wilkey said.
She said she was nervous before her first day in court as a prosecutor Oct. 5.
“I was definitely anxious, not because I think I can’t do this job, but I represented some people that were even in the courtroom,” Wilkey said. “It’s difficult to sit at the other table and have them look over with what I can only read as a look of betrayal.”
But not all of her former clients were upset. One congratulated her on the new job.
“That made me feel a lot better to know that somebody would be understanding that it’s not that I don’t personally like them and I don’t want to represent them,” Wilkey said. “It’s simply that I needed a lifestyle change.”
While Todd usually covered cases involving sexual assault and domestic violence, Wilkey said that will only be part of her job, and she will have more variety in her caseload.
She said the biggest difference so far with the job is the number of phone calls she receives.
“In one day if I was in court and not able to answer my phone, my voicemail box would fill up, and that takes quite a few calls,” Wilkey said about working as a public defender.
Some weeks, she said she was in court every day. As a prosecutor, she’s only at the courthouse for grand jury and criminal motion hour, unless there’s a trial.
Less time in the courtroom also means she gets to bring her 8-year-old min pin doxie mix, Finnigan, to the office. He lies on his bed next to the heater while she works.
“Pace of life is different,” she said. “You’re not running around trying to cover so many things. You have a chance to really focus on each case that you have.”