Clouds and sun

On the defense: Sonoma County lawyers deal with 'real-life drama'

  • Defense attorney Richard Scott talks his client Denise Michelle Hankins, during a hearing at the Superior Court of Sonoma County in Santa Rosa, California on Wednesday, October 24, 2012. (BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)

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.'"

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