Cannon for the Defense:
By Lauren Gard, November 28, 2002 12:17 PM
Richmond Public Defender
Blasts Racial Inequity on County Juries
RICHMOND -- Deputy Public Defender Patrick Cannon spends his days here defending accused traffic violators, drug addicts, wife beaters and killers. At night, the UC Berkeley graduate says he sleeps soundly. "I'm an advocate," he told a group of visitors at his office here recently. "It's not my job or the DA's job to decide who's guilty."
It is his job, however, to make sure his clients receive every right they are entitled to under the U.S. Constitution. And it's that point that nettles him most, Cannon says, insisting that Contra Costa County falls far short on this important score when it comes to African-Americans.
RICHMOND -- Contra Costa County Deputy Public Defender Patrick Cannon spends his days defending accused traffic violators, drug addicts, wife beaters and killers. At night, the UC Berkeley graduate sleeps soundly. "I?m an advocate," he told a group of journalism students recently. "It?s not my job or the DA?s job to decide who's guilty."
It is his job, however, to make sure his clients get every right they are entitled to under the U.S. Constitution. And it?s that point that nettles him most, Cannon says, insisting that Contra Costa County falls far short on that important score.
Cannon, 34, manages up to 150 felony cases a year. He logs 70-hour weeks at the office, where a child's plastic desk mingles with a half dozen chairs in the cramped lobby of the district office here near the municipal courthouse, and in the courtroom. In many of the cases he takes on, he acknowledges, there is no real chance of winning a not-guilty verdict for his clients. He aims instead to ensure that his clients get the treatment they deserve under the U.S. constitution.
But he worries they don't. And that's the real challenge he sess in his job.
While Cannon often pushes to get his clients' voices heard in the courtroom rather than having them plead out of a charge, he bemoans the Superior Court?s location in Martinez. It is the only court in the county where felonies are tried. In Martinez, just 3.3 percent of the population is, like Cannon, African American -- the race of the majority of Cannon's clients. In Contra Costa County the figure is roughly 9 percent. In Richmond, where the Office of the Public Defender is located, African-Americans comprise 36 percent of the population.
"If a minority is taken out of their community, they are less likely to be tried by a jury of their peers," said Cannon, his hands gripping the air in front of him. He shook his head at the prospect of summoned would-be jurors from Richmond trekking all the way up to Martinez. It just doesn?t happent to the degree the system needs to ensure fairness for his clients. Under the Constitution, every defendant is entitled to a jury of his or her peers. For defendants from Richmond, Cannon says, this is rarely the case.
Cannon said this challenge makes jury selection a much more calculated process'yet even so, most often he speaks to a sea of white faces during trials. Despite the existence of statistical analyses that show, according to Cannon, wide racial and socioeconomic discrepancies between the jurors and his typical clients, so far there is little hope of changing the situation.
"The District Attorney is in Martinez, so they say having just one court location is more effective," he said. "I think it's just an excuse not to have a more representative pool [of jurors]."
Contra Costa County ranks third among the 14 largest counties in California for the number of jury trials conducted each year. Office of of the Public Defender here handles cases differently than other public defense departments in California, with a single attorney seeing a client through from start to finish of trial. The more typical scenario is that of an attorney-client assembly line in which an attorney deals with one particular aspect of a client's case and then passes it on to another attorney, and so on.
Eventually, however, many attorneys in Cannon's office wind up working with the same clients?only on different charges. Repeat offenders comprise 80 to 90 percent of the felony cases that blow through the door.
For Cannon, it's a hard job, with long hours, but also one that is among the most important society can offer. He says he wouldn't have it any other way.