Public defender asks that public heed the facts

By: Jonathan Richter, chief attorney, Ciummo & Associates
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I need to set the record straight about a series of misrepresentations contained in a recent article about the performance of the Placer County Public Defender’s Office (“Advocates planning to sue public defender,” Loomis News, Sept. 16). During four years as public defender our office has handled more than 30,000 cases for clients who did not have the resources to hire private attorneys. I’ve received dozens of letters and cards from clients, thanking us for our hard work, dedication, patience and diligence in pursuing the defense of their cases. Contrary to what a protest group called the Justice Reform Coalition would have readers believe, complaints are extremely rare. Our office and the county take complaints very seriously, and investigate each one. Please remember, though, that our clients are accused criminals, many of whom refuse to accept responsibility for their actions. They frequently blame others for their problems, and we are a convenient target. Not once has a court relieved us or overturned a case for ineffective assistance of counsel. No jury has found that we committed legal malpractice. Protesters claim our office skimps on resources or pushes to settle cases to increase our profit margin. Both charges are false. All our staff gets paid a monthly salary and benefits whether we take 5 cases to trial, or 50, or 500. Funding for expert witnesses, scientific testing, psychological evaluations, or other trial costs is paid separately by the county. It does NOT come out of our pockets, so there is no extra profit to be made by settling a case. Our rate of trying cases is nearly double the statewide rate. We push our attorneys to try more cases, and reward those who do so with larger raises and promotions. Our contract calls for 28 attorneys, five investigators, and five clerical staff. These staffing levels comply with the standards set by the American Bar Association. Yet we actually provide 29 attorneys, six investigators, and 6.5 clerical staffers. Why do this if it reduces our profit? Because what matters to us is doing a good job, not making profit. What bothers me most about the recent article were the accusations against our firm’s attorneys. Our attorneys all come from top law schools, and want to succeed at their jobs. They take pride in their work and labor nights and weekends hoping to hear the words “not guilty.” Being a public defender is a thankless job. You’re not likely to get rich doing it, and it takes a special sense of dedication to do a job where “winning” usually means that your client got community service and a fine instead of jail or prison, or a misdemeanor on his record rather than a felony. Some of our clients are dangerous. Some are mentally ill. We don’t get to pick and choose. We provide this constitutionally guaranteed service to them all. The recent protest against our office was instigated by a former client who rejected our sound legal advice. He insisted we file frivolous motions and conduct a hopeless trial. We followed up every lead and interviewed dozens of witnesses. At trial we beat half the charges, including two that could have been strikes. The jury convicted him of the rest of the charges, including perjury and stalking. He blamed us, filing complaints with both Placer County and the California State Bar. Both entities investigated and determined his allegations were baseless. Now he protests and threatens lawsuits rather than accept responsibility for his actions. Our office is proud of its record of providing outstanding, cost-effective service as Placer County Public Defender. We welcome public oversight of our office, but ask everyone to heed the facts, not wild charges and rhetoric. Jonathan Richter is chief defense attorney with the Placer County office of Ciummo & Associates.