Balancing the Scales of Justice 

Brendon Woods, Alameda County's new public defender, is determined to raise the profile of his office and speak out on behalf of indigent defendants.

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He recalled one experience as a youth after he and his mother moved from Virginia Beach to a more upscale community in Fairfax, Virginia. "We were waiting out in front of our new house to get the keys, and the neighbors called the police on us," he said, laughing at the memory.

Woods attended four different high schools before moving to Carmel, California after his mother got accepted to the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey. There, he lettered in football and track and field. But once he was old enough to drive, Woods was frequently stopped by police for minor infractions. One incident in particular left an impression: He was driving back to Carmel High School from a yearbook party during he senior year, when a police officer followed him all the way to the school and questioned him in the parking lot in front of his peers.

After graduation, Woods went south to UC Santa Barbara in 1988. But he decided not to take pre-law courses at UCSB, choosing instead to major in political science and policy. "I always wanted to be a lawyer, I just never thought it was feasible," he said. "From a young age, I was a peacemaker and wanted to argue for the other side."

But Woods said that, as a child and a young adult, he was more focused on being practical. While in college, he worked at a pizza parlor and a furniture store to support himself, and trained with the campus Army ROTC program. When he arrived at UCSB, his plan was to join the military after college, like his mother, but then he shied away from enlisting. "I appreciated the structure and discipline, but the part of losing my individuality wasn't appealing," Woods said. The US invasion of Iraq and Kuwait during the Gulf War also turned Woods off to the prospects of a military career.

Woods' desire to pursue law grew out of courses he took from the Department of Black Studies at UCSB. His coursework focused on the work of Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., as well as prominent figures from the African anti-colonial struggles, such as Amílcar Cabral and Kwame Nkrumah. "In retrospect, it was shocking to get that sort of exposure at a place like UCSB, but they had — and still have — a robust black studies department," Woods said, adding that the experience "provided such greater exposure when you start learning from the struggles that African Americans had in this country over the centuries, and made me want to give back — to contribute to my community in my professional life."

Woods eventually gravitated toward criminal law, and then to defense work. "I knew I was either going to be a public defender or work in civil rights litigation," Woods said. "They're the best ways to contribute to the community I'm from."

Working as a prosecutor did not click with Woods' personal experiences or those of his family. His uncle, whom he was close to during his childhood, is in federal prison for bank robbery. Another cousin was in and out of custody in Los Angeles and San Francisco for drug possession and other felonies. Woods and his family are awaiting confirmation from San Francisco authorities that a body found under a pier in San Francisco on June 10 was that of his cousin.

Another formative experience took place when Woods got pulled over by police in Ventura while still attending UCSB. A friend's car had broken down in King City, so he decided to drive north to pick him up with two other companions. On the way back, "police pulled us over, made me get out of the car, sit down and cuffed my hands behind my back," Woods recalled. He was forced to sit on the curb for 45 minutes while handcuffed, while police kept asking the three passengers — all of whom were white — if they were all right. "They thought I'd kidnapped the passengers in the car," Woods said.

After graduating from law school at the University of San Francisco in 1996, he went to work as a post-bar clerk for the Alameda County Public Defender's Office. He was hired as a deputy public defender two years later. Litigating trials was his goal. "It put me over the top: You are the ultimate advocate, you have your client and you're fighting for them," he said. "You're 100 percent invested in them."

Public defenders are the draft horses of the criminal justice system. All defendants in criminal cases have the right to an attorney even if they can't afford to hire one, thanks to the 1963 Supreme Court decision Gideon v. Wainwright. Public defenders, however, are widely viewed as the inglorious counterparts to district attorneys, who have been lionized by generations of television shows like Law and Order. Public defenders traditionally have been hindered by limited resources and saddled with staggering caseloads. Consequently, many well-off defendants turn to private attorneys for what they view as more reliable representation, although that often isn't the case.

The Alameda County Public Defender's Office, in fact, has a long-standing reputation for being one of the best of its kind in California and for vigorously representing its clients. But it does have a heavy caseload. According to internal statistics, the 100-attorney office took on 35,595 new cases in 2012. Each lawyer in the department assigned to felony cases carries an average of 273 of them per year, while attorneys responsible for misdemeanors oversee 353 cases annually on average. The office currently is working on 58 homicide cases.


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