Public Defender Carl C. Holmes, the blunt-talking barrister who spent 30 years fighting for the indigent and indefensible in Orange County criminal courts, announced Thursday that he will retire this month.
Holmes, who defended a rogues’ gallery of clients during his tenure, said some of his most gratifying cases ended with convictions. The true reward came in sparing his clients the death penalty.
“In this line of work, keeping a person from the death penalty is a success,” said Holmes, 61. “Saving a person’s life is about as good as it gets.”
News of Holmes’ retirement was met with sadness Thursday in Orange County’s legal community, with friends and adversaries hailing his dedication in making sure that every defendant received a fair trial.
“He’s always given the best honest defense he could put forth,” Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas said.
“I don’t find him doing any of the sneaky, dishonest shenanigans some defense attorneys get known for.”
Fighting on behalf of killers and ne’er-do-wells didn’t always win him friends. But Holmes said he relished the times that his efforts helped in tough cases.
Holmes said his dedication to defending the penniless is rooted deeply in his experience while growing up poor in the Midwest and in his opposition to the death penalty.
“I’ve got a real weak spot for the poor and a real chip on my shoulder,” Holmes said. “Some people feel it in their guts. Others, we have to teach.”
Paul Meyer, a criminal defense lawyer and former prosecutor who faced Holmes numerous times as a prosecutor, said the outgoing public defender holds an almost mythic reputation in the courthouse.
“He’s the Atticus Finch of Orange County,” Meyer said, referring to the lawyer in the novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.” “He’s got great integrity. He’s the essence of a public defender. He’s placed his stamp on the public defender’s office and raised it to a noble profession.”
Holmes said he was gratified by the release of DeWayne McKinney, who spent 20 years in prison for a murder he likely did not commit.
Holmes led the effort to win McKinney’s release but was named as a defendant in a federal lawsuit against the public defender’s office and the Orange Police Department.
Based in part on McKinney’s release, Holmes also joined the district attorney’s office in an unusual project to review potential wrongful convictions using DNA technology.
Rackauckas said Holmes’ reputation as a forthright and ardent public defender made such a pioneering project possible. Rackauckas said Holmes was also instrumental in the implementation of Proposition 36, the law intended to divert nonviolent, first-time drug offenders into treatment programs instead of prison.
“There was quite a fear that if the public defender took an obstructionist position and took a lot of these cases to trial, it could have bogged down the system,” Rackauckas said. “That could have caused a crisis. Carl hasn’t done that. He’s been very practical.”
Holmes, who will step down Jan. 24, supervised about 200 deputy public defenders for the last five years. Before that, he was chief deputy public defender for 15 years. He will be replaced for the interim by Chief Deputy Public Defender Debbie Kwast.
A graduate of UC Berkeley and Hastings College of Law in San Francisco, Holmes said he decided to become a public defender even before he entered law school. His classmates, he said, never quite understood his conviction. “They’d ask me, ‘Don’t you want to make money?’ ” Holmes recalled. “I told them, ‘I don’t care about money.’ ”
Noting that 30 years is a long career for a public defender, Holmes said he decided on retirement now because “it was time to smell the roses.” He said he plans to pursue his hobbies of photography, fly fishing and computers.
While he doesn’t have immediate plans to continue practicing law, Holmes said he wasn’t withdrawing entirely from the criminal defense world. He said he would continue to lobby for an amendment to the state’s three-strikes law.
“I’m going to continue to fight for that,” Holmes said. “When the law was passed, there was a gross misrepresentation of what it was we were voting for.”