All About the El Dorado County District Attorney and Public Defender

How the county’s two top public criminal lawyers face off in court.

PUBLISHED OCT 21, 2021 12:00 A.M.
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The El Dorado County D.A. and P.D. are at the heart of the criminal justice system.

The El Dorado County D.A. and P.D. are at the heart of the criminal justice system.   Sora Shimazaki / Pexels   Pexels License

People unfortunate enough to be accused of a crime head into a courtroom facing a uniquely American type of adversary—the district attorney, a prosecutor who works for the public, or as they say in court, “the people.” The public prosecutor, employed and paid by the federal, state or county government, existed nowhere outside of the American colonies before 1704, when Connecticut began using a system of public prosecution. Though much of the American legal system has its origins in English common law, private lawyers handled prosecutions in the British system.

Public Prosecutors: The American Way

How and why Americans came up with the idea for the government to use one of its own employees to prosecute criminals remains something of a historical mystery. According to legal historian Joan E. Jacoby, in her article “The American Prosecutor in Historical Context,” the concept likely arose from the clashing views of crime in English and American cultures. In England, Jacoby wrote, crime was viewed as a private matter between individuals, primarily concerning property.

“It was a system designed to protect property in a society based on property,” Jacoby wrote. “As a result it became a system of government ‘of the rich and by the rich.’”

In the young United States, and today, a more egalitarian view of justice became the norm. Crime was not seen as an offense against one individual person at a time. Society as a whole aka “the people” is the true victim. Therefore, prosecutors represent “the people,” not just one aggrieved person.

Though exactly how this concept of justice translated into the district attorney system remains murky, by the time of the Civil War jurisdictions throughout the states employed district attorneys quite similar to those that exist in counties throughout the U.S., and of course in all 58 California counties, in the present day.

Public Defenders Have Origins in the U.S. Constitution

While the defense attorney is not a uniquely American concept, the idea of the “public defender”—a lawyer paid by the state to defend accused offenders financially unable to hire a private attorney—has its origins in the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which guarantees criminal defendants the right to “counsel.”

But that Constitutional right remained nebulous until the concept of a public “defense office” was first conceived, a conception that took place in California. Clara Shortridge Foltz, the first woman to practice law in the state, came up with the idea in 1893—though it was not until 70 years later that the U.S. Supreme Court, in the case of Gideon v. Wainwright, ruled that the right to a defense attorney was absolute. Counties across the country were then compelled to hire public defenders.

In El Dorado County, the public defender’s office employs 14 lawyers, led by Chief Public Defender Teri Monterosso and five support staff. Together, they handle about  4,000 cases per year. Nationwide, according to a U.S. Justice Department study, about 80 percent of all defendants are determined to be “indigent,” and therefore have their cases handled by public defenders.

El Dorado County Public Defender in a ‘No-Win Position’

Monterosso was hired by El Dorado County in 2013, and according to a county civil grand jury report from two years later, she was immediately thrust into “an almost no-win position,” selected over a popular—and male—chief assistant public defender who was not picked as a finalist for the job at all by the Board of Supervisors.

Despite her rocky hiring, and the fact that when the grand jury investigated in 2015 it found that half the lawyers in her office had their résumés out in search of other jobs, its final report concluded that Monterosso was “doing well under the circumstances” and that under her stewardship the office “is doing a good job of representing indigent criminal defendants.”

The grand jury recommended keeping Monterosso in her job, which she has held ever since. Defendants find out if they qualify for representation by a lawyer from her office at their arraignment—that is, their first court appearance—when they must answer a series of questions about their financial condition. Based on that information, a judge decides whether to assign a lawyer from the public defender’s office to represent that person.

If that happens, the public defender will fight for the client “tirelessly, fearlessly, and with compassion!” So says the El Dorado County P.D. office website. “If appointed to represent you, the Public Defender’s only loyalty is to you, our client.”

D.A. Sought to Replace Public Defender With Private Lawyers

On the other side of the case is El Dorado County District Attorney Vern Pierson, who requested the grand jury investigation of Monterosso’s office in the first place, a request which the grand jurors found “somewhat suspect” given the inherently adversarial relationship between public prosecutors and public defenders.

Pierson’s intention, according to the report, was to eliminate the El Dorado public defender’s office and replace it with a system of private attorneys who would contract with the county to provide defense for indigent clients. That contract system exists in 19 California counties (though Santa Cruz County will abandon it and start its own public defender’s office in 2022), but the grand jury recommended against switching over to private attorneys.

Unlike the chief public defender, who is hired by the Board of Supervisors, district attorneys are elected. Pierson first won the El Dorado County office in 2006, two years after a brief bid for a state senate seat as a conservative Republican. At the time, he was chief assistant D.A. in Amador County.

D.A. Once Target of Short-Lived Recall Campaign

Pierson was most recently reelected in 2018, easily fending off a challenge from Trish Kelliher, one of the prosecutors in his office. Like many California elected officials, however, Pierson was also the target of a recall effort, this one in 2015. The effort also went nowhere, and the D.A. shrugged it off as an attempt at revenge by a former member of the county Charter Committee who was later arrested on several motor vehicle charges and convicted by Pierson’s office.

The El Dorado County D.A. has prosecuted several high-profile criminals under Pierson, including the horrific case of Philip Garrido, a serial rapist who with his wife, Nancy, was convicted of abducting 11-year-old Jaycee Dugard from outside her home in South Lake Tahoe, holding her in captivity and subjecting her to sexual abuse and rape for 18 years—a case that made national headlines.

He also claims several administrative accomplishments, which include establishing a cold case homicide unit in the El Dorado County D.A.’s office, and creating one of the state’s first “paperless” prosecutor’s offices.

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