Top attorneys from the defense side of the bar gave students insights from inside the criminal justice system during a Stanislaus State presentation Feb. 14.
Para La Defensa: Perspectives from the Criminal Bar brought to campus Cristina Bordé, of the Office of the California State Public Defender and Matt Gonzalez, chief attorney of the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office.
“I think students who watched their presentation left permanently changed,” said organizer Blake Wilson, assistant professor of criminal justice at Stan State. “The idea in bringing the Latinx attorneys to campus is not just to talk about their legal issues, but to give their perspectives as members of the profession.”
Stan State student Ana Villegas, who plans to be a prosecutor, said she valued that insight. “It was a great opportunity for me to learn the strengths and weaknesses of the prosecutors involved in their cases, information that is best obtained by hearing these real-world experiences firsthand,” she said.
Both speakers addressed high profile cases involving indigent immigrant defendants, which in the context of current immigration debates brought a sociological lesson as well, Wilson said. “In these cases, they get to see how lawyers respond to not just evidence against their client, but larger, structural problems involving racial and cultural differences.”
That wider context is key for the next generation of criminal justice practitioners, he added. “Criminal justice is a huge collection of large institutions,” Wilson said. “We want to bring students as much information as possible about both the good aspects of our criminal justice system and other aspects that are in crucial need of reassessment by conscientious professionals.”
Both speakers spent the following day with criminal justice classes, giving students one-on-one time to ask questions.
Gonzalez, who grew up in the border town of McAllen, Texas, received 2018 Defender of the Year from the California Public Defender’s Association for his successful defense in a highly publicized murder case. In 2017, undocumented immigrant Jose Ines Garcia Zarate was sitting on a San Francisco pier when a gun he was holding fired a single shot that ricocheted and killed a passerby. Conservative media seized on the case to condemn sanctuary-city policies in San Francisco and illegal immigration more broadly.
Despite the media glare, in this case the system worked, Gonzalez said. The jury followed the evidence in acquitting Zarate. “He was given the same presumption of innocence that you or I enjoy in our system of justice.”
But Gonzalez sees systemic inequities. “So many of the crimes being committed in the communities where the police focus their attention are based on a lack of income or resources or wealth,” he said.
Gonzalez brought courtroom immediacy to his discussion. Bordé, meanwhile, has spent her career in the appellate levels, dissecting older cases for missteps and oversights that might have wrongly convicted an innocent person. She recently joined the California Office of the State Public Defender in the appellate division after working for the Wisconsin Innocence project as well as the Habeas Corpus Resource Center.
Born in the United States but raised in her parents’ native Colombia, Bordé said she found her passion helping inmates who face a death penalty she calls arbitrary and unfair. “Only 2 percent of counties in the United States account for more than 52 percent of all executions since 1976,” she said. “It’s very inconsistent. We typically think of death penalty cases as the worst of the worst. The statistics tell you that’s not true at all. It’s more the luck of the draw.”
The case she shared with students involved nearly 20 years of research by her team, resulting in a complete exoneration. His name cleared, Vicente Benavides was welcomed home after 27 years on death row, a rare, happy ending for a case few lawyers would touch: A 21-month-old in his care had died of internal injuries blamed on sexual assault. But Bordé discovered the first emergency room to treat the child saw no injuries consistent with sexual assault. The bruising documented later was likely caused by the less-experienced medical team trying to save her. Experts in 2017 could not pinpoint the cause of the toddler’s tragic injuries but described trial testimony attributing them to sexual assault as “anatomically impossible.”
Bordé said the criminal justice system failed, as is so often the case, through dozens of tiny missteps. Benavides was initially interviewed with an interpreter not fluent in Spanish, causing police to mistrust his answers. The medical experts at trial never saw the first ER report, causing them to misread her symptoms.
Stan State student Isaac Munoz said he learned the most from in-the-trenches stories shared by the attorneys. “I felt these individuals showcased how our criminal justice system has flaws, but these flaws are addressable.”