The San Benito County Public Defender and District Attorney’s Offices, Explained

If you’re in the San Benito criminal justice system, here are the lawyers you’ll be dealing with.

PUBLISHED JAN 5, 2022 4:47 P.M.
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Lawyers with the public defender and district attorney face each other at trial in the San Benito County courthouse.

Lawyers with the public defender and district attorney face each other at trial in the San Benito County courthouse.   Michael Patrick / Wikimedia Commons   Public Domain License

The United States Constitution, specifically the Sixth Amendment, guarantees every criminal defendant the right to be represented by counsel in trials, and all judicial proceedings. In San Benito County, the 17th smallest of California’s 58 counties (and easily the least populous in the Bay Area), that means in most cases, a defendant who cannot afford his or her own lawyer will be defended by attorneys from the law firm Fitzgerald, Alvarez, and Ciummo.

The Madera-based firm provides public defender services for Madera, Amador and Calaveras counties, as well as “conflict defender” services—that is, it steps in when the public defender’s office has a conflict of interest—in Fresno County. The private firm added San Benito County to its roster of public defender contracts in May 2021. The contract runs through April 2022.

Like their predecessors, Harry Damkar, Gregory LaForge or Arthur Cantu, the lawyers at Fitzgerald, Alvarez, and Ciummo are private attorneys. But they are paid by the county to defend clients who are declared “indigent”—that is, without the financial resources to hire a lawyer—by a judge, after a financial review.  How is it that the county’s “public” defenders are actually in private practice? It’s not all that unusual. Another 19 counties in California also contract with private lawyers for their public defender services—but in 2022 that number drops to 18, because Santa Cruz County is set to end its contracts with private attorneys and open a county-run public defender’s office.

In May of 2021, the county also contracted with attorney Pamela Brown and, once again, Damkar (a former San Benito district attorney), both based in Hollister, to handle conflict cases. Brown also handles juvenile justice cases that require a public defender.

What is a “conflict” for a public defender? In the county’s highest-profile murder case of 2020, in which Jose Antonio Barajas was accused of a shooting death in 2014 and spending four years as a fugitive in Mexico before his capture extradition in 2018, LaForge was originally assigned to the case, according to a report by the BenitoLink news site.

But when it was discovered that LaForge was also the lawyer for one of the defense witnesses on the case, he was forced to step aside—and Damkar took over. (Barajas in November 2021 was found not guilty on two counts of attempted murder, but guilty on one count of firing a weapon at an occupied vehicle. The jury failed to reach a verdict on a murder charge, as well as kidnapping and attempted murder charges.)

On the other side of every criminal case—and, in fact, deciding which criminal cases are tried in the county—is San Benito District Attorney Candice Hooper, who has maintained a businesslike, spotlight-deferring profile since facing rather difficult circumstances as soon as she won her first election in 2006.

Hooper won a three-way race for D.A., ousting the incumbent top prosecutor John Sarsfield. In a consummate act of sour grapes, as soon as he realized that the election results were not going to go his way, on June 6, 2006, Sarsfield immediately dumped his entire caseload onto Hooper’s desk, as The Gilroy Dispatch reported.

“I’m going to give the people what they want,” the outgoing district attorney said.

But the then-D.A. elect proved her unflappability right out of the gate, responding only that she felt Sarfield was “trying to assist in the transition.” She then took on the unexpected caseload without complaint.

Hooper ran unopposed in 2010 and continues to hold the office today, maintaining her businesslike posture, even as San Benito County sees an oddly high number of headline-worthy criminal cases. In addition to 2020’s Barajas case, according to columnist Marty Richman, Hooper has also overseen cases that include “a mother accused of shooting her infant child, social media-connected rape, and most recently, charges of a gang-related retaliatory murder by adults and juveniles acting in concert.”

But the D.A. has “kept the lid on it going about her business like a true professional” throughout, Richman wrote.

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