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In the Citadels of Law

September 25, 2002

Defense lawyers throughout California are gasping about the lenient justice system that prevails in the land. Outrage of outrages, they say they have been victimized by one of their own. Crime victims, of course, are entitled to sympathy. But in this case, we'd all have to stop laughing first.

The California Public Defender Assn., you see, had kicked attorney Ana Maria Patino out of its group and its Internet chat room. Now she stands accused of using the identity of another lawyer to regain access to the digital coffee klatch and--cover your eyes if you're squeamish--write mean messages.

Yes.

Well, not just any mean messages. Look at her missive to a former president of the Orange County Bar Assn., back when she was still allowed in the chat room: "You never have ceased to amaze me in your pretentious sense of power which you choose to gloat over people." Actually, with a tortured sentence like that, Patino probably should have been charged with "the cold-blooded murder of the English tongue," as Henry Higgins put it in "My Fair Lady."

Instead, she was charged with identity theft, forgery and fraud, the crimes some thieves use to rob people of their savings and credit ratings.

But since no one lost a single tangible thing, not a life, limb or nail clipper, prosecutors went soft on Patino. They'd make the whole thing a civil matter if she agreed to apologize, do community service and pay $1,500 in fines.

So far, Patino admits nothing, except that she doesn't like the public defenders and they don't like her. Easy to see both sides on this one.

Acting as if they've never heard of plea bargaining, and figuring that the criminal courts can't be too busy for a good game of Trivial Pursuit, members of the association plan to ask a judge to kill the agreement.

One fumes that prosecutors care more about being tough on "some indigent client who pocketed something at Mervyn's" than on someone who had the temerity to upset a pack of lawyers. Imagine.

The State Bar of California plans to investigate. Other than hoping for action there, the defenders would be best off taking the experience as a sensitivity lesson: This is what it feels like to be on the other side of the criminal justice system. Patino the defense lawyer went and got herself a good defense lawyer.

Exactly the way the system was meant to work. Funny that the defense lawyers aren't applauding.

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