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Monday, December 13, 2010

Teresa Caffese, Chief Attorney at Public Defender's Office, to Step Down

Posted By on Mon, Dec 13, 2010 at 3:40 PM

click to enlarge Teresa Caffese
  • Teresa Caffese

The highest ranking non-elected official at the San Francisco Public Defender's office is departing at the end of this year to start her own law practice.

Teresa Caffese, who has worked at the Public Defender's office for 23 years, will be leaving at the end of this month. As chief attorney, she is second-in-command at the reputable agency to Public Defender Jeff Adachi.

On the eve of her transition, Caffese spoke to SF Weekly and offered some thoughts on the current state of San Francisco's criminal-justice system.

Some of Caffese's observations aren't surprising coming from a battle-hardened criminal defense lawyer. For example, she sees her own office as an exemplar of public representation for those who can't afford private lawyers. Unlike public defender's offices in some other counties, which are often seen as the refuge of untalented lawyers, San Francisco's office has built a reputation for its effectiveness -- and, particularly, the willingness of its attorneys to take their clients' cases to trial.

"It truly is one of the best criminal defense law firms in the state," Caffese says.

Caffese also sees the district attorney's office as adrift under outgoing DA Kamala Harris, who was just elected California Attorney General. Harris, despite her victory in the race over Los Angeles DA Steve Cooley, has been criticized by many as an "absentee landlord" who has placed her political ambitions over the day-to-day functioning of her office.

"If you don't have somebody at the top who's supposed to be in charge and paying attention, things start to get loose and they start to fall apart," Caffese says. "The DA's office never had a clear leader. ... I think that the charging decisions were often politicized."

Among her more memorable cases, Caffese says, have been those of DeEbony Smith, a Western Addition woman who was acquitted of murder after Caffese presented evidence at trial of domestic abuse at the hands of the victim; Haggag Mohsin, a Bayview store owner who was charged and acquitted of assault with a firearm following a shoplifting incident; and LaShaun Harris, the mentally ill woman who, in 2005, threw her three children into San Francisco Bay, killing them.

Caffese says she looks forward to returning to the courtroom for more trial work after opening her own practice. She still sees jury duty as "one of the only truly direct ways that a citizen can participate in democracy."

The lawyer notes, "You decide whether the state has overstepped its boundaries" in charging people with a crime. "That's a beautiful thing."

Photo   |   San Francisco Public Defender's Office

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