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Alex Landon : He Looks Nonconformist, but Head of New Indigent Defense Office Knows the System

March 08, 1987|JENIFER WARREN | Times Staff Writer

When Alex Landon stands before a jury on behalf of a client, he typifies the distinguished sartorial style of a well-heeled defense attorney. His three-piece suit is neatly pressed, his shirt the Oxford, button-down variety, his loafers new and shiny.

Landon's courtroom demeanor is conservative as well, marked by respectful "Yes, your honors" and polite salutations to jurors.

But then there's the ponytail.

The thick brown tress, which dangles obtrusively down between Landon's narrow shoulder blades, might seem a gamble for a criminal defense attorney seeking favorable verdicts in conservative San Diego. If nothing else, it's a curiosity, a relic from another era that could prove irksome to a given judge or juror.

There is no evidence, however, that Landon has paid a price for his unconventional coiffure. Indeed, in the 15 years since he was admitted to the California bar, Landon has built a rock-solid reputation as one of the most dedicated and resourceful defense attorneys in the San Diego legal community.

Recently, Landon's talents were recognized when he was hired to launch the county's new program for providing lawyers to indigents accused of crimes. The quasi-public "community defenders office" was approved in concept by the San Diego County Board of Supervisors last year and will replace the existing system of contracting with private lawyers sometime this summer.

As executive director, the 40-year-old Landon will guide a staff of more than 160 attorneys expected to handle most of the estimated 30,000 cases annually that involve defendants who cannot afford their own legal counsel.

He also will be under intense pressure to inject a sense of order and consistency to a county public defender system that has been under attack for its spiraling costs--they have tripled since 1978--and denounced for providing inadequate representation to its low-income clients.

Those who know Landon say he is the ideal man for the job. Colleagues in both the defense and prosecutorial camps praise him as uncommonly adroit, knowledgeable and, above all, deeply committed to a criminal defendant's Sixth Amendment right to quality legal representation--regardless of his ability to pay.

"I don't think we could have found a person better suited for this job if we'd done a national search," said noted defense attorney Peter Hughes, who served on the blue-ribbon commission that recommended creation of the new community defender program.

"Alex has got a really good personality for having to deal with the inherent tensions involved with this job, which is to try to serve an enormous demand in terms of representing all the indigents in the San Diego court system and to balance that with the desire of the taxpayers and supervisors to keep costs down."

"If there was ever a no-win situation," Hughes said, "this is it."

Landon, a thin, soft-spoken man, says he is ready for the challenge.

"I go into it with my eyes open," he said in an interview recently, barely visible over the two-foot-high stacks of files and volumes that blanket his desk at Defenders Inc., a nonprofit law firm that has the county's largest contract for indigent defense.

"It's an exciting opportunity because, for the first time in San Diego County, we will have the resources to really impact the system and ensure we get quality legal representation for indigent defendants. That will be very rewarding."

Landon also noted that, while it will be tough to balance the often-conflicting goals of providing quality defense and keeping the budget down, he does not believe cost control should be overemphasized.

"I think it was Supervisor (George) Bailey who said that we don't question the district attorney's need to have money to hire people to prosecute defendants," Landon said, "so why should we question the defense? I think if we're truly to have an adversary system and if we're truly to respect the right that even if a person is poor they should not be deprived of a proper defense, then we have to recognize that it does cost some money to provide these services."

In today's era of victims' rights, with politicians and voters clamoring for death penalty convictions, Alexander Lewis Landon's views on criminal justice may seem to be out of vogue.

Ask him about the nation's crime problem, for example, and he will discuss at length his stubbornly held view that the war is being fought all wrong.

"If you're looking to the criminal justice system to solve the crime problem," Landon says, "you're looking to the wrong place. Because you already have a problem once a person is involved in our system. In order to address the crime problem, we have to look to the reasons people get involved in crime in the first place."

Landon uses his "leaky faucet theory" to illustrate his criticism of the currently popular approach of cracking down on criminals and imposing tougher sentences in hopes of making society safer.

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