Deputy Public Defender Howard C. Waco was controversial long before he was dragged from a courtroom and shoved into another by two Los Angeles police officers acting on a judge's orders.
Last Monday's unusual incident set tongues wagging throughout the city's legal community. But Waco has long been notorious around the Van Nuys courthouse for a rather quirky professional style that frustrates many of the people with whom he works.
Court clerks, judges, bailiffs and deputy district attorneys there are apt to roll their eyes and groan when Waco's name is mentioned. The consensus from dozens of interviews is that Waco is seldom where he should be, a charge Waco defends by holding up a calendar crammed with court dates.
"I can't be in every judge's court at the same time," Waco said.
But even his critics say Waco is a sharp, hard-working attorney who takes seriously his role as advocate for the accused.
Waco has been the subject of even more controversy than usual since Van Nuys Superior Court Judge Raymond T. Mireles sent two police officers--witnesses in a probation violation hearing--to get Waco, who was representing the defendant. "Bring me a piece" or "body part" of Waco, witnesses quoted Mireles as quipping. Mireles later told an angry delegation from the public defender's office that he thought Waco was in the hallway outside his courtroom and did not intend for the officers to use force.
Waco, who earlier had been told by a bailiff that he would not be needed in Mireles' courtroom for several hours, was dragged backward out of Van Nuys Superior Court Judge Alan B. Haber's court and shoved into Mireles' courtroom. He suffered a bruised leg and was indignant enough to retain a lawyer for a possible lawsuit against Mireles and the officers. A hearing convened by Haber to determine whether the officers were in contempt of his court is scheduled to resume Friday.
Many courthouse wags consider the incident to be poetic justice, a view that makes Waco's colleagues indignant. Deputy Public Defender Linda Schwartz, who saw Waco being dragged out of Haber's courtroom, said he did nothing to deserve that treatment. It was, she said, an affront to the court system.
"It shouldn't have happened--it's terrible what happened, but it's not a surprise that it happened to him," said one court clerk. Many of those interviewed did not want to be named because they fear repercussions from bosses or strains in their working relationships with Waco.
"He has a history of not showing up in court, being late and having an arrogant attitude about it," said a court clerk.
"You hope you never have a case on calendar with his name on it," said another courtroom employee. "You never know when he's going to show up--or if at all he'll show up. If he leaves the courtroom, you can't count on him coming back when you want him."
"He's probably got a heart as big as all outdoors, but he's a big pain to work around," said Richard Condiff, the bailiff in Haber's courtroom. "He always wants everybody to stop what they're doing and take his case immediately."
Condiff said he even thinks Waco ducked into Haber's courtroom specifically to seek sanctuary from Mireles, a charge Waco denies emphatically. Waco added that he had no need to hide from Mireles since he had been told he was not needed in the courtroom for several hours. Born in the Bronx 50 years ago, to a father who sold and repaired clocks and a mother who was a pioneering female stockbroker, Waco attended USC School of Law before joining the public defender's office 24 years ago. He has spent about 12 years of his career in Van Nuys, where he earns about $80,000.
A slender man who describes himself as shy, Waco said he is bemused by all the furor surrounding him but doesn't care what his critics say; what matters are his clients.
"I challenge the system to the nth degree for the rights of my clients," said Waco, whose son is a rookie Los Angeles police officer. "I get a real high out of making sure that people's rights are protected, at least when they're in my care. I represent the downtrodden. These people appreciate someone who will stick up for them for the first time in their lives, who will fight for them heart and soul."
Waco's devotion is questioned by few. "He does work hard for his clients, I've got to say that," said one deputy district attorney who, in the next breath, accused Waco of taking "a perverse pleasure in being obstreperous."
Waco's boss, Bill Weiss, head deputy in the Van Nuys public defender's office, said Waco's caseload is no greater than any other deputy's, but that Waco may create friction because he doesn't bother with social niceties. "He doesn't go into the courtroom to please the judge. He goes into the courtroom to represent his client."