ORANGE PARK, Fla. - The lawyer who defended a killer recently convicted in a Clay County courtroom received threats to himself and his family so serious that he was offered police protection.
Public Defender Sean Espenship said he spent several sleepless nights worried that he or his wife were going to be attacked after bloggers began posting angry remarks about his defense of Michael Jackson -- the man convicted of raping and killing Andrea Boyer as she showed up for work at a veterinary office in Orange Park.
"People were basically encouraging other individuals to do what Michael Jackson had done to his victim: rape my wife, burn my house down," Espenship said. "Running in my mind some lunatic might come by and fire bomb or throw a Molotov cocktail through the window."
During the course of the trial, pages of comments were posted attacking Espenship using language including: "using a wooden bat," "making him black and blue," "raping his wife," "setting fire to his home."
"I noticed that the posts on the blogs were escalating," said the public defender's wife, Jennifer Espenship. "It was turning into more of a personal attack -- not against Michael Jackson, but against Sean."
Jennifer Espenship, is also a lawyer, but a mother first. They have three daughters: 7, 4 and 2 years old.
"The threats were saying, 'Maybe someone should go kill his family and maybe they'll know what it feels like,'" Jennifer Espenship told Channel 4's Jennifer Bauer.
Bloggers who had been following the trial were angry that Sean Espenship was saying bad things about victim Andrea Boyer, calling it character assassination.
"Even though I had to put the defense on doesn't mean I agree with it," Espenship said. "I went to her parents and husband and told them be prepared -- grin and bare with it -- and I believe justice will be served."
Espenship said Jackson always maintained to him that he and Andrea Boyer had a consensual relationship. Jackson insisted that someone else killed the woman.
"The defense comes from the defendant Michael Jackson himself. Essentially I was the messenger," Espenship said. "I have to do it. If I do not, then it will come back on appeal. If that happens, we're retrying Michael Jackson."
As if the threats weren't bad enough, someone posted Espenship's home address and phone number.
"Our concern wasn't the person who posted it and our address, but how someone might respond to it," Espenship said.
His wife agrees.
"Sometimes it's the person not stable and reading that and thinks is going to be a hero for the Boyer family and go kill his family," Jennifer Espenship said.
While some might have thought Espenship is a monster because of the people he represents, he spoke out because he wants people to know that public defenders do not get to pick and choose their clients. He and others like him are appointed by the court to represent defendants who don't have enough money to hire an attorney.
"I'm told you'd be hard pressed to find anyone in this office who hasn't been threatened because of a case," Sean Espenship said.
Lawmakers have considered making the home addresses and phone numbers of public defenders legally exempt from public record -- a protection that is already afforded to police officers, prosecutors and judges.
The Florida Public Defender's Association said what happened to Espenship is being used to help make their case in the Florida legislature.
Espenship said threats will not deter him from doing what's right, yet he will always have empathy for anyone who loses a loved one, especially a daughter.
"I am very sincere that I take gratification in protecting the Constitution. These people have nothing from pillar to post. Truly, if we start trampling on their rights and railroading them, then who is next?" Espenship said.
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