In his new black suit, Roberto Najera looked Supreme Court-worthy. Not only did he look the part, he felt intellectually primed for his appearance before the nation's highest court. He'd studied federal case law going back to the 1700s, read centuries-old British legal theory, and participated in mock trials. Najera, a public defender from Martinez, was ready to do battle on behalf of his client and, by extension, 799 other convicted and accused child molesters in California -- all of whom he believed should not have been charged in the first place. They'd all been prosecuted because of a 1993 state law that retroactively extended the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse.
The public defender's client was charged with molesting his own two daughters 43 years earlier. At first, the attorney thought he'd defend the Antioch man the traditional way -- by finding medical and school records and locating witnesses. But there were no records left. Many of the people who knew the family were dead or long gone. No one from the old neighborhood still lived there; in fact, even the neighborhood itself was gone. So instead of trying to fight the criminal charges, Najera challenged the very law that allowed the case to be filed.
Najera believed the US Constitution prohibited the state from retroactively changing the basic rules governing criminal prosecutions and convictions. In essence, he believed, the government had made a promise to his client, which was that when the statute of limitations on his alleged crimes expired, he was free and clear. As he saw it, the government could not just change the rules of the game at will and renege on its promises.
But Najera had a steep legal mountain to climb. The California Supreme Court had previously upheld the constitutionality of the law in another challenge that stemmed from a different child-molestation case. Still, Najera was not dissuaded. He went above their heads and earned himself an audience with the justices of the nation's highest court.
On a snowy March morning in Washington DC, as he took a cab to the stately Supreme Court building, Najera understood that the stakes were huge. If he won, his client would simply walk away scot-free -- along with at least 799 other convicted or suspected California pedophiles. A victory also would mean that other states considering similar laws would be barred from passing them. But a win would also turn Najera into public enemy number one for survivors of child sexual abuse.
The soft-spoken Najera had reached the zenith of his career, but was finding it an odd place to be. Not only was he there to represent some of the most despised people in America -- many of them Catholic priests who'd been accused or convicted of sexually abusing kids in their parishes -- he also was up against the state of California and the federal Solicitor General's Office. Both agencies had challenged his case and were there to argue on behalf of the California law. But unlike Najera, whose office had minimal resources with which to challenge the law, the state of California and the federal government had vast budgets and armies of lawyers and clerks who could devote themselves to intellectually pummeling him.
It was an unfair fight. And Najera was an unlikely candidate to be caught in the middle of it. It wasn't as if he worked in some well-heeled, pedigreed law firm, like many of those who appear before the Supreme Court. He'd spent his entire career in the trenches defending fairly low-profile clients against felony charges in Contra Costa County. Najera had forty active felony cases when he decided to petition the Supreme Court. "Most lawyers would have negotiated the Stogner case away with a plea bargain," said Michael Friedman, a Contra Costa public defender who works with Najera. "A lot of lazy attorneys would have favored the resolution route, and that wouldn't have involved the fifty thousand hours of work it took to take this case to the end."
Najera's clients were not the Scott Petersons or O.J. Simpsons of the world. They were people who couldn't afford attorneys, and whose stories would never end up on Dateline. One client was a fifteen-year-old glue sniffer who murdered a fifteen-year-old girl. Another allegedly gunned down three people in Richmond. Then there was the man whom prosecutors said shook his infant to death.
In addition to his lowly stature in the legal world, the 45-year-old lawyer was the child of a Mexican field worker and had spent much of his childhood picking peas on the Monterey coast. His father died of cancer when Najera was six years old, leaving his widow to raise their six children on a vegetable-picker's salary. That he graduated from law school at all was considered monumental by his family's standards.
Nearly every step of the way, colleagues, law professors, and other criminal defense attorneys gave him an unrelenting stream of advice. Get a new suit. Don't forget to tell the justices about this case or that case. Make sure to address the justices by name. Put this in your brief. Take that point out of your writ, or they'll never agree to hear the case.
Some of Najera's colleagues had even tried to wrest the case away from him, convinced that he was utterly unprepared and unable to handle the job. "His briefs were poorly written," sniped one attorney familiar with the case. But Najera politely declined their offers to intercede and pushed on.
Najera's wife, Cecilia, was thrilled that he'd taken the case as far as he did. But she warned him just what would happen if he won.
"She said people would think of me as someone who's opened the gates of hell."
When Marion Stogner's case landed on Najera's desk in 1998, the public defender was hurled into a raging legal debate. The California legislature had extended the statute of limitations on child sexual abuse five years earlier, and numerous court challenges were still pending. The state Supreme Court had not yet issued a definitive ruling. Najera threw the case into the hefty pile on his desk and assigned an investigator to locate witnesses and find records.
The case against Marion Stogner grew out of a separate child molestation case against his grown son, Randy. The younger Stogner faced charges of sexual child abuse in Contra Costa County for allegedly abusing a minor in his family. While that case was being investigated, Marion's two adult daughters alleged that their and Randy's father had molested them when they were kids.
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