San Mateo Private Defender program renewed despite criticism

REDWOOD CITY, Calif. (KTVU) -- The San Mateo County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously approved a $17.5 million budget for the Private Defender program, which provides private attorneys for defendants who can't afford to pay for a lawyer.

The Chief Defender John Digiacinto says the program, which replaces a Public Defender's office, is run by the San Mateo Bar Association and is the only one of its kind in California.

Some argue the county should re-evaluate the system.

Audrey Parker says her son, Gary Farmer, Jr. just turned 26, on the same day as his daughter's birthday. However, it will be years before he'll be free to celebrate with her.

Parker's son is in jail. She says he and a friend were seen shooting a gun out of a car in East Palo Alto about seven years ago. Parker says her son is mentally disabled and had no prior criminal record. 

She says the Private Defender program attorney advised Gary to sign a plea agreement for 13 years in prison, instead of trying to have him put in a mental facility or taking the case to trial.

"He's third grade level in reading and writing. So I knew he didn't have a clue what was going on," Parker said, "I said 'Gary, you wasn't supposed to. We were gonna fight.'"

The Private Defender program has been in place for more than 40 years and was instituted to lower costs.

"One of the big advantages of that is that you don't have all the extra cost that typically come with a government employee," said Dave Pine, a San Mateo County Supervisor.

The private attorneys in the program do not require pensions, health care, office space and other expenses which are usually necessary to staff a Public Defender office.

Parker and others say the county's savings could cost some people a fair defense.

Marie Davis, former president of the San Mateo NAACP, says she has received complaints about the Private Defender Program dating back years.

"We found out that in five years, no black person had won a case with a private defender. Five years," Davis said, describing one meeting years ago where concerns about the program were raised.

Last year, the program had 114 private attorneys who handled about 20,000 cases.

The program received more than 80 complaints. The Chief Defender said they review each one thoroughly.

"If we see too many complaints for the lawyer, that lawyer is not someone we would continue to give cases to and that has happened in the past," said Digiacinto,

The program was evaluated by a San Mateo County committee several years ago, but some say the committee's work fell short because there were no racial minorities included on that committee.

KTVU inquired about data regarding Private Defender program trial results to compare with other Public Defenders records. Digiacinto said they ask their private attorneys to submit court results, but not all attorneys respond, so there is limited data collection right now by the Program on the numbers of acquittals, split decisions, or convictions.

Supervisor Dave Pine told KTVU that the county just hired a new Deputy County Manager who has expressed interest in taking another look at the Private Defender Program.

"I do expect we will be looking at the performance of the private defender again shortly," Pine said.

The Private Defender Program did receive an award for excellence from the American Bar Association.

Chief Defender John Digiacinto said he would like to keep improving the program, hire more minorities, and get more community feedback.