Core Team

Jeni Benavides, Assistant to the Executive Director
Jeni Benavides is thrilled to work with the NAPD as their Training Coordinator, and to be embarking on a new career journey utilizing her background in theatre, education, and activism. Most recently, Jeni served as the Education Director at Woodford Theatre in Versailles, Kentucky, where she oversaw arts education programming for school aged students from across central Kentucky. Additionally, she has taught introduction to theatre part time at the University of Kentucky Department of Theatre and Dance. Jeni earned her bachelor’s in theatre performance at the University of South Carolina, and her master’s in theatre at the University of Kentucky. As an artist, Jeni has focused on physical approaches to performance and documentary theatre, which became integral to her work with The Girl Project (TGP). TGP is an arts meets activism program designed to inspire, educate, and empower high school aged students who identify as girls/feminine to challenge the misrepresentation of womxn in American media culture through performing arts education. For the last four years, Jeni has served as a teaching artist, Associate Program Director, and Program Coordinator for TGP. She is currently based in Lexington, KY.

Cathleen Bennett, Training Consultant
Cathleen L. Bennett recently moved to Anchorage, Alaska from Boston, Massachusetts where she was a public defender with the Committee for Public Counsel Services (the Massachusetts Statewide Public Defender) for 30 years. She was the Criminal Defense Training Director at CPCS for 17 years. As a trial lawyer trial lawyer in the CPCS Public Defender Division, she defended clients charged with murder and other serious felonies. She now works as a training consultant for the National Association for Public Defense, and she intends to accept appointments to represent criminally accused people in the Alaska Courts soon. Cathy is on the faculty and the Board of Trustees of the National Criminal Defense College. She is a Core Faculty member of Gideon’s Promise (formerly the Southern Public Defender Training Center), which was the subject of the award-winning HBO documentary “Gideon’s Army,” and she has taught for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and criminal defense training programs across the country. She received the Thurgood Marshall Award from the Committee for Public Counsel Services in 2007, the Scholar-Mentor Award from Massachusetts Continuing Legal Education, Inc. (MCLE) in 2008, the Outstanding Faculty Award in 2011 and the Stephen B. Bright Award in 2018 from Gideon’s Promise, and the Gideon Award from the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers in 2017.

KP Friess, Engagement & Communication Coordinator
KP Friess (they/them) joined NAPD in December 2020 as our Membership Coordinator. KP has been in the legal field since age 16, beginning as a typist and file clerk. They worked most recently for nearly five years at the State Appellate Defender Office of MI as an Investigator and Mitigation Specialist in the Juvenile Lifer Unit. KP is a former member of the Inside-Out Prison Exchange "Theory Group" Think Tank at Macomb Correctional Facility, a group made up of both incarcerated and non-incarcerated thinkers working together to study social theory and train in restorative and transformative justice frameworks. KP was also an involved member of their local NLG chapter during their time as an intake worker for a small constitutional law firm. KP is an artist, a writer, an abolitionist, a musician, and a proud member of the LGBTQ community. They are currently based in Detroit, MI.

Jonathan Friley, My Gideon & Creative Content Manager
Jonathan joined NAPD in June, 2017 to administer NAPD’s membership database, manage listservs, and assist and advise on other technological issues and solutions. Jonathan is currently the Public Defender Corporation (PDC) Administrator for Public Defender Services in West Virginia. As PDC Administrator, Jonathan is responsible for overseeing eighteen independent non-state agencies, consisting of approximately two hundred fifty employees across twenty-four offices and comprising a total budget of around 19.2 million dollars. In addition to his PDC duties, Jonathan participates in brainstorming sessions and moot court with the Appellate Division, assists in organizing the annual conference, and serves as the internal tech consultant for the office. Jonathan graduated from WVU College of Law in 2008, where he was active in the ADR Society (President), Phi Alpha Delta (President), OUTLaw, and other organizations. He is a vocal advocate of process improvement methods (Lean, Kaizen, Six Sigma), Just Culture, Crucial Conversations, and other topics that have labeled him the office management geek, a title he lovingly embraces. In his spare time, Jonathan likes to travel, is a budding photographer, and is an avid gamer.

Heather H. Hall, Engagement & Research Coordinator
Heather H. Hall joined the National Association for Public Defense as a member in February 2014, and is currently its Development & Engagement Director. Prior to this role with NAPD, Heather was the Special Projects Advisor for the Louisiana Public Defender Board (Baton Rouge) from 2008-2014. From 2004-2008 Heather worked as the Director of the Louisiana Justice Coalition, a non-profit, sixteen-member coalition committed to public defense reform in Louisiana. In that capacity, she built a consensus of support around the American Bar Association Ten Principles of a Public Defense Delivery System, solicited media attention and support for reform, undertook a diverse public education campaign in all 64 parishes, and initiated community-oriented defense projects in select districts. She started her professional work with the ACLU of Louisiana as their Legislative & Education Associate from 2002-2004. Heather received her Bachelor's Degrees in Religion and History from the University of Rochester (Rochester, NY) in 2002. 

Brittany Gail Thomas (BGT), DEIJ Director
Brittany Gail Thomas (affectionately known by all as “BGT”) is a visionary leader, passionate advocate, and unapologetic champion for marginalized and minoritized communities.   She is a wife, mom, friend, mentor, non-profit Founder & CEO, and Assistant Federal Public Defender who combines her passion for equity and true justice with her litigation, training, and administrative skills to manage it all. BGT served indigent clients in her role as a public defender in three different jurisdictions.  She started her career at the Legal Aid Society’s Criminal Defense Practice in Brooklyn, NY and later worked at the Office of the Public Defender in Baltimore, MD.  At both organizations, BGT was an unapologetic champion for her clients and advocate for diversity. After years as a public defender, BGT returned to her law school alma mater where she served as the Assistant Director of Student Competition Teams and as an Adjunct Professorial Lecturer.  A champion for all students, BGT became a well-known professor, coach, mentor, and supporter of all students.  She created a safe space for students of color as they navigated their transitions from law school to their careers as successful attorneys. BGT returned to public defense work in 2021 and currently works as an Assistant Federal Public Defender in Maryland.  BGT is also the Founder & CEO of The Color of Excellence® (COE), a nonprofit membership organization that provides curated training and programming for both current and future attorneys of color to combat systematic oppression. BGT joined NAPD as a member in 2020,  and served as a moderator at the Opening Doors and Pulling Up a Seat:  Recruitment and Retention of Black Public Defenders webinar, lead panelist at the 2022 Women’s Virtual Conference, and a trainer at the 2021 Women’s Virtual Conference.   In July 2023, BGT proudly joined NAPD as it’s DEIJ Coordinator.

Lori James-Townes, MSW, LCSW-C, Executive Director
Lori earned her master’s Degree in clinical social work (University of Maryland SSW) and her B.A. in Social Work from Morgan State University. Lori has over 25 years of clinical, training, and organizational development experience, which includes program development, program management, collegiate instruction, as well as, leadership and management training. Lori has served as faculty for several universities, and as a member of national and regional leadership, development, communication, and team-building trainings. Lori is also President of Expand-Now, LLC, through this entity she can fulfill her lifelong passion of adding value to others through teaching and learning. She is a part-time Clinical Professor in the Family Studies and Community Development Department at Towson University. Prior to joining the Towson University family, she served as Director of Leadership and Program Development at Maryland Office of Public Defender which has more than 800 employees across the state of Maryland. While in this position, she demonstrated her ability to help others grow in the areas of teamwork, leadership and management. She also led the agency’s social work staff, consultants, and interns. In 2015, The Daily Record Newspaper named her as one of Maryland’s Top 100 Women. In addition to working as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, she is also an author, and John Maxwell Certified Coach, Facilitator, Teacher, Trainer, and Speaker. 

Nicole Lesniewski, Membership Support Coordinator
Nicole Lesniewski recently re-joined the team to supports NAPD's membership functions. Nicole has 10 years of experience in state government , program management, and association management. She holds a Masters degree in Public Administration from the University of Kentucky. In her work life, she enjoys finding creative solutions, trouble-shooting databases, and developing processes to help support NAPD's members. In her free time, Nicole loves to travel and explore with her family. 

Jonathan Lyon, Investigator Resources Coordinator
JONATHAN LYON is currently the Investigator Resource Coordinator, past Member Support Coordinator and the national survey investigator for National Association for Public Defense. Since the pandemic he has led roughly 75 meetups for investigators both nationally and internationally.  Jon is the president of Lyon Legal Logistics to help attorneys in and out of court with Discovery and technology and has assisted attorneys in multiple federal court jurisdictions( He is also a legal investigator for McClain Investigations.  Jon began his investigative background working in a PI firm and then for 12 years for the Office of the State Appellate Defender of Illinois. His primary focus has been on post-conviction death penalty cases. In addition, Jon worked for LexisNexis as an award-winning national trainer of the CaseMap suite of software. He also worked for Lockheed Martin as a contractor supporting government attorneys and investigators with software and electronic discovery support needs. He is a Certified Defense Investigator through DePaul's Center for Justice in Capital Cases and a Certified Trainer through the Bureau of Justice Assistance. He has taught at the Clarence Darrow Death Penalty Defense College, Cardoza, DePaul, Kent, Iowa, and University of Michigan law schools.  He has also taught at the National Defense Investigator Associations Annual Conferences, National Association of Legal Investigators annual conference, National Association for Public Defense, The Innocence Project, NACDL, Federal Defender's winning strategies conferences, Life in the Balance, American Society of Criminology, US Army, and numerous state and county public defender conferences. It is not unheard of for Jon to be invited back to conferences.  Jon is the Creator/Webmaster for the internationally utilized website

Jeff Sherr, Training Director
Jeff Sherr​ is the Training Director for the National Association for Public Defense producing hundreds of webinars for public defense professionals across the nation. Prior to that he was the Manager of the Education and Strategic Planning Branch of the Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy. Jeff started with the DPA in1994, starting first as a law clerk, then working with the Juvenile Post Dispositional Unit, then in the trial division with the Stanford Field Office, and now in Frankfort with the education staff. Jeff graduated from the University of Kentucky College of Law in 1995.  Jeff has been a faculty member for Gideon's Promise, the National Criminal Defense College, Clarence Darrow Death Penalty College, Harvard Trial Advocacy Workshop, Bronx Defender Academy, and other state litigation institutes. In addition to regularly training public defender litigators and trainers, Jeff trains public defender leaders nationally and for many individual defender states and offices. Jeff also has an extensive background in theatre having studied with the National Shakespeare Conservatory and the University of Kansas. Jeff performs regularly with Central Kentucky Improv in  Lexington, Kentucky  and at Improv Festivals across the country.

Stephhane Cline Thornton, MSW, LCSW, Social Work Training & Resources Coordinator
Stephanne Cline Thornton is a West Virginia native who has worked in and around criminal defense and mitigation for more than 20 years in Georgia, Colorado, and West Virginia. She is currently the Clinical Director for the West Virginia Judicial and Lawyer Assistance Program, and owner of Transform Legal, a consultancy focused on mitigation, training, and sustainability. As a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker and Master Addiction Counselor, Stephanne focuses on proper assessment for and access to trauma and substance use disorder treatment to ensure the health and well-being of affected individuals. Stephanne is on the Trauma-Informed Care Network Speakers Bureau and uses that platform to call attention to the intersection of secondary traumatic stress and legal practice. She approaches her work with clients, lawyers, social workers, and mitigation specialists through a contextualized mitigation lens.

Jeanie Vela, Operations Director
Jeanie Vela retired from the Colorado State Public Defender's Office in 2019 after serving in a wide variety of administrative capacities for the Colorado PDs for more than 31 years, most recently as the Denver Regional Office Administrator.  As a legal administrator, Jeanie was a member of the Denver office’s management team and helped attorney supervisors develop and implement local office policies and procedures.  Prior to that position, she managed the administrative operations in the Denver office and was involved in training new employees in the Denver office as well as new administrative operations managers in other PD regional offices throughout the state of Colorado.  Jeanie is an approved grant proposal peer reviewer for BJA’s Office of Justice Programs and has written grant proposals for Colorado’s PD system, including the JAG-funded project that would become Colorado’s first social work program; a minority family advocate project designed to help families of color better navigate the criminal justice system to improve outcomes for youth; and a program that provided legal advocates for persons seeking their unconditional release from Colorado’s Mental Health Institute at Pueblo.  Prior to her work in the Denver office, Jeanie managed the Colorado PD’s $13 million Conflict of Interest budget.  She also co-developed the internal auditing processes utilized by the Colorado PD system to measure regional office compliance with judicial, fiscal and system-defined directives and conducted semi-annual performance audits of Colorado’s 21 regional offices.  Jeanie is a member of the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar Association and administers the Terri Brake Memorial Scholarship Fund which awards partial scholarships to Colorado-based criminal defense practitioners to attend death penalty training.  In 2019, she was appointed to serve on Colorado's First Judicial District Nominating Commission which interviews and recommends judicial candidates for Jefferson and Gilpin Counties.  Jeanie also served on Colorado’s Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) Board from 2010 - 2018, and as Board Vice Chair from 2015 – 2018.  Jeanie has a Master’s Degree in Legal Administration from the University of Denver (Sturm) College of Law, a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Management from Colorado State University, and a Certificate in Criminal Justice from Colorado State University.