Life is good for Richard Scott.
His business is booming, despite the recession. And he's recognized by his peers as being among the best in his field.
Yet when strangers ask what he does for a living, the reaction is often the same. People take a half-step back and utter the words he's heard so many times before.
You seem like a nice guy. How could you do that? How do you defend someone you know is guilty?
"I get asked that a lot," said Scott, a Santa Rosa criminal defense attorney for nearly 20 years. "The more you hear it, the less often you tell people."
Scott is not alone among the cadre of Sonoma County defense attorneys who stand up for society's most reviled segment — the accused — regardless of personal or public opinion.
The lives of the nearly 50 private-practice lawyers and almost 30 deputy public defenders play out daily in court against a backdrop of hard-luck stories encompassing every kind of crime, from drunken-driving up to first-degree murder.
Their workplace — the second floor of Sonoma County Superior Court — is a scene of endless human drama involving more than 14,000 cases annually, most of which go unnoticed by the law-abiding public.
Legal battles are won and lost. Brothers and uncles get sent off to prison forever. Widows and mothers cry. And shackled prisoners stagger through the halls, fear and confusion on their sagging faces.
Over the din of the morning calendar, another Santa Rosa defense attorney, Charles Applegate, described the scene as "Norman Rockwell meets 'Carnival of the Damned.'"
"You've got people who've been in custody since they were 9 and they're facing their seventh strike sitting in the same room with 60-year-old librarians who had a half-glass of chardonnay too much at bridge club and got a DUI," said Applegate.
"They're all fed into the same system and processed in the same fashion," he said. "The only thing that differentiates them is their attorney."
Most defense attorneys aren't concerned about whether someone committed a crime or not. Privately, attorneys say their clients are mostly guilty. Often times they confess.
What's important for the lawyers is defining the crime with a level of precision and arriving at an appropriate punishment.
Their purpose, they say, is to achieve balance for clients against the vast resources of the government's law enforcement arm. It's about pushing back on the system to ensure it works for everyone.
At least that's what Santa Rosa defense lawyer Erik Bruce says when asked what many defense lawyers refer to as "The Question" — How do you live with yourself after helping all those murderers, rapists and thieves go free?
"Defending someone is more than just getting them off," said Bruce, the attorney for convicted Guerneville strangler Andrew Sharkey. "It's taking them through the system and making sure it treats them fairly."
"It's not just protecting their rights. It's protecting yours," he says.
Others look at the job as being a kind of social worker, helping those who struggle to keep to the straight and narrow because of drugs or mental illness.
Steve Weiss, who's saved at least one killer from Death Row in his 36-year career, said society has largely turned its back on the people who end up as his clients. But these people still deserve a vigorous legal defense, he said, particularly in the wake of stricter laws, such as the "Three Strikes" initiative, that he says have stacked the deck against criminal defendants.