The San Francisco Public Defender’s Office stands by Deputy Public Defender Ilona Yañez, who was the subject of a recent misleading and erroneous report by ABC7 News’s Dan Noyes. The report omitted several key facts, misled viewers about the law and unfairly sought to impugn Ms. Yañez’s reputation. In publishing the story, ABC 7 News allowed itself to be a mouthpiece for DA Brooke Jenkins to carry out personal retribution against Ms. Yañez, and did a disservice to its viewers, who reasonably expect ethical journalism and professionalism. 

Our office attempted to correct these errors prior to the report’s publication, and though the report included portions of our statement, it omitted several key facts: 

The report omits the fact that an appellate court found District Attorney Jenkins had committed prosecutorial misconduct in a 2021 trial after Ms. Yañez raised concerns about Jenkins’ behavior. This fact is critically important because it explains Jenkins’ motivations for participating in and/or orchestrating this story attacking Ms. Yañez.  

The report omits the fact that Jenkins’ office vindictively punished our client, Mr. Gamero, for exercising his constitutional right to a jury trial by turning a domestic violence case into a life-eligible torture case. Mr. Gamero rejected an offer for him to plead guilty in exchange for six years state prison. Then after he decided to assert his right to trial, the District Attorney’s office added a new charge that would expose him to life in prison and made no offer to settle the case.  

The report does not cite a single state law or ethical rule that was supposedly violated. Rather, it quotes legal experts who had no firsthand knowledge of the case and had not spoken with our office. Likely because they were given one-sided information, the comments they made about this case are simply inaccurate. 

Contrary to the ABC 7 News report, it is appropriate and ethical under California law for a public defender to take the following actions as part of their duty to provide a vigorous defense of their client:  

1) Attempt to speak with a victim in a criminal case. Extensive case law supports this. The victim in criminal cases is a witness; and it is, in fact, considered ineffective assistance of counsel for a public defender to NOT try to speak with witnesses.  

  • “Defense counsel has a fundamental duty to the client to investigate and attempt to secure exculpatory information.” And: a “substantial portion of the [Constitutional] obligation counsel owes is not directly connected with the trial but involves investigation and advice at pretrial and post-trial stages.” (People v. Pope (1979) 23 Cal.3d)   
  • “Upon learning that a witness may have relevant evidence, there’s a duty to interview the witness.” (People v. Shaw (1984) 35 Cal.3d) 
  • “Where counsel is on notice potential exculpatory evidence exists, a decision not to investigate cannot be countenanced”; (People v. Rodriguez (1977) 73 Cal.App.3d)   
  • A criminal defense lawyer has a basic duty to “become thoroughly familiar with the factual and legal circumstances of the case” (Keenan v. Superior Court (1984) 31 Cal.3d;  
  • It is “patently incompetent” for a defense attorney not to interview a witness “regarding the crux of the anticipated defense” (In re Cordero (1988) 46 Cal. 3d) 

Further: Marsy’s Law (Cal. Const. art. I, sec. 28(b)(5)) establishes that a victim can refuse to be interviewed by anyone acting on behalf of the defendant. The victim in the Gamero case never refused to be contacted by Ms. Yañez and in fact reached out to Ms. Yañez via email to ask if there was any way she could speak to Mr. Gamero (and was told no). 

2) Convey information to and from their client regarding a civil (small claims) case, since the client is frequently not permitted to speak with the victim except through their attorney (as was the case here);  

There is no rule that prohibits criminal defense attorneys from communicating with victims of crime to arrange payment to settle a small claims suit. At the time of such communications in the Gamero case, Mr. Gamero was incarcerated and subject to a criminal protective order prohibiting communication between himself and the victim except through his attorney, Ms. Yañez. Ms. Yañez’s communications with Ms. Cahen were not only appropriate, but were also made specifically so her client could abide by the court’s order.  

3) Speak with jurors after a trial has concluded about what sentence a client could receive.  

After a trial has concluded, attorneys are permitted to speak with jurors, and jurors are permitted to ask attorneys about a case as well as to send letters expressing their thoughts to the judge. It is reasonable that Ms. Yañez responded to jurors’ questions about the sentence her client was potentially facing. The possible sentence was public information at that time. It’s also important to point out that in this case, the District Attorney’s Office itself issued a press release after the verdict and before sentencing that explicitly stated the possibility of a life sentence. The jurors who decided to contact the court regarding the client’s forthcoming sentencing did so of their own volition and were not coerced in any way. 

The attacks on Ms. Yañez’s ethics and character are totally baseless—she is a defense lawyer, and her job requires her to defend her client. As the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held in Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963), everyone facing criminal charges has the right to legal representation under the Sixth and 14th Amendments to the Constitution. We stand by Ms. Yañez, who carried out her legal and ethical duty to her client in providing a vigorous defense.