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GROUND-LEVEL JUSTICE

Defender Works for Fairness, Not Wealth

Ramiro Cisneros isn't showered with respect but says he is protecting the Constitution.

September 05, 2006|John Balzar | Times Staff Writer

Dump truck. Public pretender.

Ramiro Cisneros knows the disparaging names he's called. Everywhere he turns, people look at him with a question mark in their eye. Even his parents at first wondered why he became a public defender in the criminal courts instead of a prosecutor.

His clients talk among themselves about being "dumped" onto the public defender's caseload. Sometimes in the courthouse, witnesses mistakenly believe that a public defender is not a lawyer but someone of lesser standing. Strangers he meets in social situations sometimes dare to ask him directly: How can he take the side of murderers, gangbangers and other scum?

He has answers, all public defenders do.

He has lofty answers that go right to the Bill of Rights. And he has personal reasons too.

The fact is, his work means something. To those he defends, it can mean almost everything.

This week, earlier in the summer, Cisneros has added to his workload by agreeing to be our guide to ground-level justice at the Los Angeles County felony court in suburban Norwalk.

*

Outside Department S this Tuesday, the deputy district attorney needs a cart to carry all the case files for today's felony calendar. The same thing is happening at five other courtrooms in this monolithic seven-story courthouse.

Often in the movies and the news headlines, the clash between right and wrong engages teams of lawyers in furious weeks of courtroom theater. The far greater share of courtroom life, however, is quite the contrary: one lawyer carrying many cases with tightly scripted appearances often measured in minutes.

Right now, Cisneros is responsible for defending 25 people accused of felonies -- the most serious level of crime, those that carry terms in state prison. Today, four of those defendants are to appear before Judge Larry S. Knupp for one reason or another.

In these appearances and brief hearings, many cases are resolved. This is where the plea bargains are offered, where injustices can be weeded out, where parolees are called to account for their lapses, where the lawyers size up their clients and vice versa.

*

As court convenes, Cisneros has one case that's a defense attorney's slam-dunk. At least, legally speaking it is. Emotionally, well, it's a different matter.

Twice before, the accused has failed to appear in court. He has been behind bars in Los Angeles County Jail but did not make muster to the courthouse. Today, he's been brought here in handcuffs -- a bushy-faced man with a hint of wildness in his eyes. In the courtroom he wears a yellow jailhouse shirt, which is a sign, Cisneros explains, of someone with possible mental problems.

A resident of Bell Gardens, the defendant was arrested after police received a complaint that he was loud and creating a disturbance at a self-service laundry. An officer found that the man had a dagger in a sheath on his belt. He was charged with the crime of possessing a dagger, and his rap sheet showed that he was on probation for a similar offense, so prosecutors used their discretion to file the case as a felony rather than a misdemeanor. The defendant was additionally charged with violating parole and possession of a small amount of marijuana.

After the man was arraigned and given a preliminary hearing in an outlying courthouse, the case landed on Cisneros' desk. The attorney read the file and did a double-take.

The police report of the arrest and the hearing transcript of the officer's testimony was specific on one thing: The dagger was visible on the man's belt. The law makes possession of a dagger a crime only if it is concealed.

Cisneros prepared a motion asking that the case be dropped. That motion is the purpose of today's hearing.

"I'm at a loss," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Paul Minnetian.

"Me too," says the judge. "Case dismissed."

Easy. But not quite so easy. The man has given many signs of being troubled. What if his behavior is a cry for help?

The judge has the two lesser charges to clear. The bushy-faced man has served 73 days in jail, and the judge intends to let that stand as punishment for the probation violation -- carrying a weapon when the terms of probation forbid it. This sentence and a suspended fine for marijuana possession will end matters. But the defendant insists on denying that he is on probation.

"That's not my name," he says, over and over, his eyes aflame.

Cisneros taps his shoulder impatiently and tells him to quiet down.

"Excuse me, sir. Would you be quiet," says the judge. Cisneros has the authority to "declare doubt" about the man's capacity to fathom these proceedings. That would return him to jail for psychiatric review. He might get counseling. The judge could do the same thing. After all, the man just might be better off under supervision, Cisneros tells himself.

Except, the bushy-faced man did not commit the crime of carrying a dagger. Since when does the judicial system presume to keep a man locked up when he didn't break the law?

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