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On the defense: Sonoma County lawyers deal with 'real-life drama'

Defense attorney Richard Scott talks with his client Denise Michelle Hankins during a hearing at the Superior Court of Sonoma County in Santa Rosa on Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2012.

BETH SCHLANKER / The Press Democrat
Published: Saturday, October 27, 2012 at 3:58 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, October 27, 2012 at 3:58 p.m.

Life is good for Richard Scott.

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Defense attorney Richard Scott talks with his client Denise Michelle Hankins during a hearing at the Superior Court of Sonoma County in Santa Rosa on Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2012.

BETH SCHLANKER / The Press Democrat

His business is booming, despite the recession. And he's recognized by his peers as being among the best in his field.

Yet when strangers ask what he does for a living, the reaction is often the same. People take a half-step back and utter the words he's heard so many times before.

You seem like a nice guy. How could you do that? How do you defend someone you know is guilty?

“I get asked that a lot,” said Scott, a Santa Rosa criminal defense attorney for nearly 20 years. “The more you hear it, the less often you tell people.”

Scott is not alone among the cadre of Sonoma County defense attorneys who stand up for society's most reviled segment — the accused — regardless of personal or public opinion.

The lives of the nearly 50 private-practice lawyers and almost 30 deputy public defenders play out daily in court against a backdrop of hard-luck stories encompassing every kind of crime, from drunken-driving up to first-degree murder.

Their workplace — the second floor of Sonoma County Superior Court — is a scene of endless human drama involving more than 14,000 cases annually, most of which go unnoticed by the law-abiding public.

Legal battles are won and lost. Brothers and uncles get sent off to prison forever. Widows and mothers cry. And shackled prisoners stagger through the halls, fear and confusion on their sagging faces.

Over the din of the morning calendar, another Santa Rosa defense attorney, Charles Applegate, described the scene as “Norman Rockwell meets 'Carnival of the Damned.'”

“You've got people who've been in custody since they were 9 and they're facing their seventh strike sitting in the same room with 60-year-old librarians who had a half-glass of chardonnay too much at bridge club and got a DUI,” said Applegate.

“They're all fed into the same system and processed in the same fashion,” he said. “The only thing that differentiates them is their attorney.”

Most defense attorneys aren't concerned about whether someone committed a crime or not. Privately, attorneys say their clients are mostly guilty. Often times they confess.

What's important for the lawyers is defining the crime with a level of precision and arriving at an appropriate punishment.

Their purpose, they say, is to achieve balance for clients against the vast resources of the government's law enforcement arm. It's about pushing back on the system to ensure it works for everyone.

At least that's what Santa Rosa defense lawyer Erik Bruce says when asked what many defense lawyers refer to as “The Question” — How do you live with yourself after helping all those murderers, rapists and thieves go free?

“Defending someone is more than just getting them off,” said Bruce, the attorney for convicted Guerneville strangler Andrew Sharkey. “It's taking them through the system and making sure it treats them fairly.”

“It's not just protecting their rights. It's protecting yours,” he says.

Others look at the job as being a kind of social worker, helping those who struggle to keep to the straight and narrow because of drugs or mental illness.

Steve Weiss, who's saved at least one killer from Death Row in his 36-year career, said society has largely turned its back on the people who end up as his clients. But these people still deserve a vigorous legal defense, he said, particularly in the wake of stricter laws, such as the “Three Strikes” initiative, that he says have stacked the deck against criminal defendants.

“Each one of these cases involves people who have something going on in their lives,” Weiss said. “Everyone is entitled to find their way through it.”

Still others find their work a higher calling that requires emotional gymnastics and putting things in “compartments.” They decompress at the end of the day at the gym or local watering hole.

“You're dealing with the most difficult interpersonal situations you can imagine,” said another Santa Rosa defense attorney, Roy Miller. “You have to learn to shield it out.”

Some feel recession's pinch

On top of the job's built-in challenges, private attorneys must deal with two recent trends — the slumping real estate market, which has dried up a traditional source of legal funding, and the continuing shift toward tougher laws.

Just how defense attorneys have navigated the recession depends on who you talk to.

Some veterans like Richard Scott seem unaffected by the weak economy. He's still commanding up to $350 an hour for his services. The highest-paid criminal attorney in Santa Rosa, Chris Andrian, increased his basic rate over the past half-dozen years to $450 an hour.

“If it hadn't been for the recession, I would have raised it again,” Andrian said.

But others are struggling as cash-strapped defendants are losing their ability to pay. People who would normally have hired private counsel are more often turning to the taxpayer-funded Public Defender's Office for help. Either that or they settle their cases early.

At the same time, budget cuts have reduced staffing for indigent legal services. There are now 27 attorneys in the Public Defender's Office — down seven from five years ago — handling roughly 80 percent of the court's criminal cases each year.

With pending changes to the county pension system, the department expects to lose even more attorneys to early retirement.

“It's devastating,” said interim department head Kathleen Pozzi. “I have a serious knot in my stomach fearing I will be losing about 250 years of combined experience.”

Meanwhile, private defense lawyers are scrambling for any work that's available.

Rich Ingram, past president of the Sonoma County Bar Association, said the situation has forced people to travel to other counties for work. About 40 “regulars” roam the Hall of Justice alongside visiting attorneys who don't find enough paying customers closer to home.

“I hear from my junior colleagues that it's tougher now,” Ingram said.

Kristine Burk, a seasoned veteran who won an acquittal in the 2006 Santa Rosa parking garage slaying and has defended such notorious clients as shotgun killer Nicole Bradley, recently left private practice for the security of the Public Defender's Office.

Some called it a sign of the times that a lawyer of Burk's experience would make such a move.

“People were paying nothing, and I was driving everywhere,” Burk said. “It was stressful waiting for the next big case. Now I'm getting a smaller paycheck, but it's steady and the job is more manageable.”

Still, new people keep joining the profession, albeit at a slower rate. William Robertson, dean of Empire College School of Law in Santa Rosa, said enrollment is down at law schools across the country.

Empire graduates between 20 and 40 new lawyers each year. Although most enter civil firms, strong internship programs with local prosecutors and defense lawyers help direct a steady stream toward criminal law. But it's by no means the most popular career course.

“Crime is not a growth industry in Northern California,” Robertson said. “In a graduating class of 20, you may have four or five go into criminal practice.”

Tougher laws, penalties

When they arrive in the courtroom, they're finding increasingly tougher laws passed down by voters and the Legislature. The three-strikes law, which went into effect in 1994, requires life sentences for those convicted of a third felony. Supporters say it keeps career criminals off the streets, but critics say it's also helped fill the state's prisons with people who don't deserve such harsh sentences.

Also, penalties have increased for more common violations like drunken driving. Punishments like lifetime sex offender registration are assigned more frequently. And many local defense attorneys say police and prosecutors tend to “overcharge” crimes in the hopes of winning a conviction on lesser offenses.

Defense attorneys say they deal with that upward “creep” on a regular basis.

“The public perception is that the system works really well,” said Jeff Mitchell, a longtime deputy public defender. “The reality is, there are a lot of mistakes made. Just correcting those mistakes is a lot of what we do.”

Santa Rosa attorney Gerald Villareal, a former deputy public defender now in private practice, said the relationship between prosecutors and defense lawyers has become strained since he began in 1975.

Back in the day, a defense lawyer could sit down with the chief prosecutor and talk about the case. He recalled how former District Attorney Gene Tunney, who led the office from 1974 to 1994, would meet with him and seemed to know about every case.

But that all changed over the past decade as voters began approving tougher laws.

“It's become much more adversarial,” Villareal said. “Prosecutors won't talk to you anymore.”

'It's real-life drama'

So why do students settle on a criminal law career, passing up more lucrative civil practices?

Andrian, who started his practice 40 years ago, is motivated in part by a desire to be at “the fulcrum of what's going on in society.” He pointed to his recent work in the distracted-driving case of a Sonoma State University student who killed a toddler in a crosswalk while text-messaging.

“We're in the middle of what's ailing society,” said the bearded barrister. “That's what makes criminal law interesting.”

Others like the theater of it all. Miller, a former prosecutor, said the job is never boring. Every day he's confronted with stranger-than-fiction tales that keep him riveted.

“There are things people do in this world that just kind of make you scratch your head,” said Miller. “I'm not just sitting in an office, staring at transcripts. It's real-life drama and it's there every day.”

Santa Rosa's longest-serving defense attorney, Steve Turer, said he was inspired by fictional lawyer Perry Mason. Turer tried divorce law briefly but found it boring compared to wrestling with the penal code.

“I'd much rather represent a killer than an irate spouse,” Turer said. “Killers are more cooperative. They know you are their lifeline.”

Despite their necessity, defense attorneys can't shake the bottom-feeder stigma. Even lawyers in other specialties sometimes look down on them.

Scott, who's represented sex-offenders and embezzlers in the past year, says it's all hogwash.

He tells a story about his encounter with a cocktail-swigging civil attorney at an office Christmas party. Upon learning Scott's occupation the man looked askance.

“I told him, 'What if you got a DUI and hurt or killed someone?'” Scott said. “'Should I not defend you?'”

“He thought for a moment and said, 'That's different. I'm not a criminal,'” Scott recalled.

Scott shrugged and handed him a business card.

A few months later, the man scheduled an appointment to see him. He was facing a drunken-driving charge.

“Some guys think only evil people get in trouble,” Scott said.

But sometimes bad things happen to good people.

“What do they do? Hire a lawyer like me.”

(You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com.)

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