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L.A. County's top public defender once hoped to be a prosecutor

Victimized by bullies in his youth, Ron Brown longed to see wrongdoers punished. But his quest for justice took an unexpected route.

February 16, 2011|By Jack Leonard, Los Angeles Times
  • Ron Brown stands in Mona Park in Willowbrook, where as a boy he dodged thugs on his way to school. I cant believe the park is so small. It was so huge when you were trying to make it across.
Ron Brown stands in Mona Park in Willowbrook, where as a boy he dodged thugs… (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles…)

Growing up in some of South Los Angeles' toughest neighborhoods, Ron Brown was an easy target for bullies. The scrawny kid wore glasses, earned As in class and was no good at sports.

"Hey, Poindexter!" older children shouted before snatching his lunch money or roughing him up.

The bookish Brown was afraid to go to school. He sought refuge in a library and carried a switchblade knife that his mother bought him for protection.

But the violence continued through his teens. Brown was kicked unconscious in one beating and, on another occasion, was robbed at gunpoint.

Fear and anger stoked a desire for justice and to protect vulnerable people like himself. He would make sure that the kind of thugs who had terrorized him and his family wound up in prison. He vowed to become a hard-charging prosecutor.

::

Brown, the second of six children, was raised by his mother after his parents divorced when he was about 5. The family survived on welfare, and his mother fed her children from 50-pound sacks of rice and pinto beans. When the food ran out, Betty Sue Brown would look her oldest boys in the eye.

"I need you to be strong young men and hang in there," she told them.

It wasn't easy.

In the Jordan Downs housing project in Watts, a boy once threatened to burn Ron with a cigarette unless he handed over his cash. When his family moved to Willowbrook, he lived in fear of the bigger kids who hung out at Mona Park, demanding money and inflicting the occasional beating, whether he gave it up or not.

"Four-eyed dog!" they taunted.

After Ron's older brother was robbed at knifepoint, Betty Sue bought the switchblade knives for her oldest boys. Ron carried his to school in the front pocket of his pants. He showed it off to friends but left it untouched during confrontations.

Ron found a haven at the county's Willowbrook library. There, he could read science fiction books without worrying who was sizing him up.

When his older brother, Richard, went to USC on an academic scholarship, Ron vowed to follow. A year later, in 1972, he did, joining his brother, also on an academic scholarship. In school, Ron began to consider becoming a prosecutor, which he saw as a way to hit back at those who had abused him.

In 1976, he enrolled at the UCLA School of Law, where he excelled in criminal law. After graduation, however, he struggled to pass the state bar exam, a requirement for practicing law.

He failed twice, each time narrowly missing out on the exam's essay portion. In the summer of 1980, he took the test a third time and was awaiting the results when his mother underwent what was supposed to be routine surgery on an ulcer. Within weeks, she was dead at the age of 44.

Less than three months later, he learned he had passed the bar. Brown felt an enduring guilt that his mother never saw him become a lawyer.

"I'll never forgive myself," he said. "She would have been so proud."

::

The young lawyer put his career plan into action and applied to the Los Angeles County district attorney's office. He bought a dark brown sport coat and a clip-on tie for the interview.

He was greeted at the downtown criminal court building by two clean-cut-looking prosecutors. They hit it off. Then came a question.

"How do you feel about the death penalty, Ron?" one of them asked

Brown didn't consider capital punishment an effective deterrent and believed that jurors were more inclined to return death verdicts for poor black and brown defendants than for whites.

"I'm absolutely against the death penalty," he replied.

He noticed the interviewers looking at each other and sensed he had given the wrong answer.

Rejected for the job, and with student loans to pay off, Brown revised his plan.

He applied to the county public defender's office, where attorneys represent defendants unable to afford their own lawyers. It would hardly be his dream job, but he figured he could gain some valuable courtroom experience for a couple of years before he tried again to become a prosecutor.

He never mentioned his desire to become a prosecutor, and he got the job.

Brown's first assignment was at the Bellflower courthouse, and he immediately stood out. He was one of only eight black lawyers in the office and the only one in southeast L.A. County. Some white defendants were wary.

He recalled one telling him over the phone, "I just want to make sure I don't get that black guy."

Brown invited the client to meet him at the courthouse to discuss his case. The man looked shocked when he arrived but never apologized.

Brown justified his defense work by telling himself that he didn't know whether his clients were guilty. If they were, perhaps they were guilty of something less serious than the charges they were facing, he reasoned.

In his first year, Brown represented a man charged with misdemeanor assault after a fight in a Cerritos shopping mall. The client had argued with another motorist over a parking space and knocked the other driver to the ground.

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