"Crisis" at public defender's office delays justice, costs taxpayers

FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) -- Public defenders in Fresno County are refusing to take the most serious cases coming through the courts, leaving taxpayers to pick up an extra bill to defend accused criminals.

"They're so overwhelmed with the number of cases they have, they don't have enough time to prepare these cases," said legal analyst Tony Capozzi.

For almost two months now, the publicly funded public defender's office has refused to take serious cases, leaving private attorneys to pick up the slack.

When the man accused of a series of random shootings on Fresno County highways came to court, the public defender refused to take the case.

The suspect charged with murdering a transgender woman also won't have a public defender.

Action News acquired a letter sent by the head public defender, Elizabeth Diaz, to the county and the courts in December, announcing her intention to reject a lot of the most serious cases. Diaz blamed an uptick in crime over the last few months and said she doesn't have enough attorneys capable of handling this type of case.

When the public defender declines cases, private attorneys have to pick them up and the county foots a bill outside of the usual budget for courts.

"When the great recession hit the County of Fresno there were many cuts across departments --whether it be the public defender's office, the district attorney's office -- all of them were cut, and right now we continue to try to rebuild these departments," said county supervisor Nathan Magsig.

The public defender's office had 135 employees in 2008, but by 2012 they were down to 78. They're back up to 120 now, but in the meantime, the county has grown and the caseload has too.

Two supervisors told Action News they recognize the importance of public defenders in combination with law enforcement and the district attorney's office.

"All three of those entities work together within the justice family and if one has shortcomings, it creates complications throughout the entire process," said county supervisor Andreas Borgeas.

But the county is also facing a lawsuit from the ACLU, the American Civil Liberties Union, claiming public defenders here are impossibly overburdened, with some of them assigned to handle 1000 felonies a year -- way more than the 150 recommended by state guidelines.

When we reported on the ACLU's complaints in 2015, we mentioned the family and friends of murdered Parlier coach Artie Gomez finding out how slowly the courts can move. Three years later, the man accused of killing Gomez postponed a trial date in November 2017, but is tentatively scheduled for trial in April 2018.
That kind of justice delayed is often justice denied, according to Capozzi. He called the staffing situation a crisis.

"It's important that this issue be dealt with now and be dealt with quickly because the public is suffering, defendant is suffering, and the criminal justice system is suffering," he said.

The public defender's office didn't respond to repeated requests for comment, but the letter says they're re-evaluating the situation every two weeks.
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