Behind the Scenes With An SF Public Defender

By Jonah Owen Lamb

SF Examiner

The cramped room vibrated with the low frequency of flickering halogen lights. In one corner of the forlorn jail interview room, a plastic food tray, like some forgotten pet food dish, sat on the floor piled with soggy cigarette butts.

This is the room Tal Klement, a 41-year-old deputy public defender in San Francisco, walked into one recent afternoon. Klement, a short, youthful looking man with hints of a beard and short brown hair, sat down at one of the two blue-gray plastic chairs bookending a small table. His client, a thin, shaken-looking man, huddled in the other chair, his elbows cradling his head. An inmate in County Jail at 850 Bryant St., the client launched into stories of the medicines he needs and wasn’t getting.

“When was the last time you got mental health services?” Klement interrupted.

It’s been some time, the man admitted, describing a litany of health issues, including 10 surgeries on one leg. In examining the specifics of his client’s case, Klement told him, “My dream would be for this to go to behavioral health court.”

“With my history, that’s possible,” said the man, who seemed glad just to have met his attorney.

A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A DEFENDER

The afternoon jailhouse visit was one of the last items on Klement’s long to-do list in a day that began with horse trading among lawyers in a judge’s chambers, covered a busy calendar of pretrial motions, and was filled with nearly constant consultations with client after client in the courthouse’s noisy halls.

Klement, an 11-year veteran of the Public Defender’s Office, is one of 90 lawyers and support staff who fight for more than 20,000 clients in San Francisco each year who cannot pay for their own defense. Like his colleagues, Klement, typically juggling 50 to 60 cases at any time, is on the front line of some of the most important criminal cases in San Francisco and sees the inner workings of the criminal justice system every day.

“If nobody across the street pleads to a felony, I’ve had a good day,” he said.

This is what a good day looked like. Klement, originally from England, was not always destined for law, per se. After college, he was aiming to become a disability-rights activist, which to some degree was influenced by his own disabilities. It’s hard not to notice Klement’s shortened arms and missing fingers, a disability he was born with. But following a brief stint in Tennessee working for disability rights, he realized that work was not for him. Time at the Seattle Public Defender’s Office sat with him much better.

“I saw racism play out,” he said of his work as a lawyer there. He found that his work in the courts was more fulfilling and more to his liking than any activism. Poverty, race and mental health issues were all wrapped up in the courts, he said.

SCENE OF THE CHAMBERS

Klement sat behind a stack of files, as one of a handful of lawyers filling Judge Ethan Schulman’s chambers. Before anything was said in open court, the judge, defense attorneys and prosecutors argued, cajoled and made deals about their coming cases. The assistant district attorney, Shirin Oloumi, who would be handling most of those cases, stood with her hands on the metal handle of a cart full of files mulling each offer, throwing back counteroffers.

Within a half-hour, the same lawyers stood, with their clients beside them, before a robed Schulman in open court. Department 9, aka Schulman’s courtroom, sits on the ground floor of the Hall of Justice, where The City’s Superior Court is headquartered. The low-ceilinged, cramped courtroom was filled most of the morning with defendants and their family and friends.Creaking seats and calls of “Tal Klement for the defendant” echoed throughout the room, along with the bailiff’s jingling keys and the ring of a cellphone.

On this day, as on most, the court was acting as a clearinghouse of sorts for cases in the preliminary part of proceedings. Most would not move upstairs to other judges in other courts for trial. Instead, most felonies were dropped in exchange for misdemeanor pleas. Much of Klement’s morning was taken up hustling in and out of court, grabbing translators for clients, talking in the hall with clients — and their mothers — and trying to get in touch with those who had not shown up to court.

But two cases among the many — some handled by Klement for colleagues in trial — were his top concerns this day. The first was the case of a Bayview man suspected of possessing a stolen motorcycle. Police detained him during the pursuit of a suspect in another crime. The second case involved jewelry stolen from a Pacific Heights construction site.

OTHER DUTIES

Klement had just completed a 2½-month trial involving a shooting on Muni, which he won, so the daily routine of preliminary proceedings and wrangling had been on hold for some time. On most days, he shows up at 8 a.m. and leaves by 4 p.m., but when he has a trial — about five times a year — things are different. “It’s trial 24/7,” he described.

While trials may take a toll, he said it’s what he lives for, especially when he’s victorious.

“My favorite part is winning,” he said. But he doesn’t always win.

“The last big case, I thought I should have won. I had to take time off I was so devastated,” he said about a loss in a homicide case a couple years back. “You get so close to these people.”

With the loss, he recalled, it was the first time one of his clients had been sentenced to life. While he works smaller cases, he is also at work on a handful of larger cases. They include: a murder by DUI, an attempted murder charge in a gang-related case, a Tenderloin shooting where several people were shot, a domestic violence attempted murder, a robbery where the defendant is facing a third strike and a sexual assault. He keeps track of all these cases by getting to know the people as best he can.

“You get to know clients, cases and it sticks with you,” he said. “You have to know what’s going on in their lives.”

WORKING WITH CLIENTS

Some time after 11 a.m. one recent Wednesday, Klement’s two main clients that day were escorted into the courtroom cuffed and in orange jumpsuits. The first, a Latino construction worker, was arrested in a sting. When the owner of the house he was working at said that some of her things had been stolen, he offered to act as a go-between and get them back. When he showed up, she had called the police and he was nabbed on suspicion of the theft. But in court he had been offered a deal by the prosecutor: get the woman her wedding ring back within two weeks and receive a lesser charge, or come back to jail and face the more serious charges. He took the deal.

“Either he will give the ring back or he will surrender,” said Klement, his client by his side in court.

“Don’t get into any trouble between now and then,” Schulman, the judge, told the defendant. The bailiff then unlocked the man’s cuffs.

Klement’s second main client of the day, a lean, tall black man, had also agreed to a deal. He took a misdemeanor plea instead of facing a felony charge in order to immediately get out of jail. That also meant a yearlong probation and a series of fines.

“Most, if not all, of these fines are subject to your ability to pay,” Schulman said before the man was also uncuffed.

A REPRESENTATIVE BEYOND THE COURT

After lunch, which Klement wolfed down in his office, a young client whom he just spent 2½ months defending walked through the door sipping a McDonald’s smoothie, another lawyer who worked on the case in tow.

The client had just been released from jail and Klement was trying to make sure the client spent as little time in San Francisco as possible. With that in mind, Klement was trying to get him into a program in the Sierra Nevada area so he stays out of trouble.

“You gotta be careful” Klement told the quiet young man. “Where are you staying?”

“At my mom’s house,” the young man replied.

“My preference is for you to stay away — I know it’s hard because you got family,” Klement said.

Then Klement asked the client if he still planned to come over during the weekend for a few odd jobs at Klement’s house. The trio were not just meeting for fun. They had a hearing across the street to attend. As they walked to the Hall of Justice, Klement told his client to tuck in his white shirt.

“You gotta tuck it in,” Klement said.

“Yeah,” he replied, but ignoring the advice.

Once inside the Hall, on the third floor, the three waited in an empty courtroom for the judge. After the short procedural hearing, Klement headed back to the office for a brief time. He later returned across the street for one final time, where he intended to visit with a client on the seventh floor of the Hall of Justice in the County Jail. That is where he ended his day, in a small cramped room talking of a case far from the trial stage. For Klement, such interactions with his clients are to let them know there is someone rooting for them, someone who cares.

“It’s not a system without its faults and troubles,” he said. Still, he believes in the justice system he defends each day in San Francisco.