The Burden of Defense 

Surviving a rookie year in the Alameda County criminal courts.

In Stephanie Hartung's job, idealism can become a burden. She's an assistant deputy public defender for Alameda County. She is 32 years old, and she resolutely believes that hers is a noble calling -- defending the poor, the unfortunate, and the innocent. That's why when Alvictor Bradford demanded a trial to prove his innocence from charges of credit card fraud that he faced, she listened.

Not that Hartung is naive. She knows that fully half of her clients who claim innocence have something in common: They're guilty, and they (wrongly) figure that denial offers better odds than confession when they're trying to avoid prison. This was not Bradford's first arrest, and circumstances pointed to his guilt. Still, the case wasn't clear-cut; it raised just enough questions that innocence seemed possible. The problem was that, even if Bradford were innocent, he would be in trouble in a trial. Hartung had almost nothing around which to construct a defense. She would point out holes in the prosecution's evidence and try to raise reasonable doubt, but she told Bradford the case looked bad. Bradford again insisted he was innocent.

Suddenly, there was an unexpected break. The district attorney was none too sure of his own case and was willing to offer a plea bargain. He was having proof problems, so a trial seemed risky for him, too. The DA offered a plea bargain. He would reduce Bradford's charge to a misdemeanor, plus restitution, in exchange for a guilty plea. This was a godsend: no San Quentin for Bradford if he said "sorry" and paid the money back. Hartung explained the offer to her client. If he insisted on a trial and was found guilty, he could go to prison for five years. Paying back $19,000 was bad, but surely prison was worse. Bradford again insisted he was innocent; he wanted a trial. The district attorney kept asking, "Is this going to go away? Is this going to go away?" Hartung couldn't make it go away. So Hartung was going to trial.

In the Alameda County Public Defender's Office, a charge carrying a maximum five-year prison sentence qualifies as a "low exposure" case. That contrasts with "high exposure" cases, where the defendant might face one hundred years, or life, both sentences that the state of California imposes with increasing frequency these days. "We get kind of jaded about what's low exposure," Hartung said. "I mean for God's sake, five years. In prison. That's a long time. Think about that."

Hartung believed she had a chance at a hung jury in the Bradford case. The jury saw matters differently. Bradford was found guilty. She held out hope he wouldn't serve time. Bradford read a statement, handwritten in pencil: "The DA offer me an offer, but I am innocent, so I didn't feel it would be right to accept it for something I didn't have anything to do with." Then the judge sentenced Bradford to four years, only one year short of the maximum. And that's when Hartung couldn't stand any more. She stood in front of the court and accused the judge of punishing her client for having the temerity to turn down a generous plea bargain and demand his day in court.

"I was pissed. Once in a while, I will bust out the righteous indignation," she said. "I felt like I wanted to lay it out there and say, this is what's going on, everyone knows it; it's clear, and it's disgusting." Hartung's hormones may have given her righteous indignation a push. She's five months pregnant. She waited for the judge to explode, but the judge just sat there, and the sheriff's deputies took Bradford away.

Twelve days later, Bradford appeared before the judge for one last sentencing formality. He had another statement to read. He confessed to the charge and said he was sorry for taking up the court's time. "I didn't really mean to do it, and I'd like to apologize to the jury if they was here, to the clerk and to the bailiffs, and to the district attorney and public defender."

And so the case became just another part of Hartung's education in her first high-profile year on the felony trial staff of the Alameda County Public Defender's office. In a perfect world, Hartung could have reflected on the perversity of modern justice. But with her next client facing life, and another client on death row, she pressed forward. In the era of three strikes and tough sentences, there's only so much good that even a good public defender can do.IThe Alameda County Public Defender has one of its offices across the street from the municipal courthouse in downtown Oakland. The office's reception area resembles a high school principal's office, except here the secretary sits behind a bulletproof window. The waiting room's tile floor is dirty, people work at small desks designed in a style that could be described as Shaker Detention Hall, and read copies of news magazines are all at least a year old. Despite its appearance, this is arguably the best public defender's office in California; its the place where young defenders like Stephanie Hartung start their careers.

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