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California

L.A. County’s top public defender once hoped to be a prosecutor

Growing up in some of South Los Angeles’ toughest neighborhoods, Ron Brown was an easy target for bullies. The scrawny kid wore glasses, earned As in class and was no good at sports.

“Hey, Poindexter!” older children shouted before snatching his lunch money or roughing him up.

The bookish Brown was afraid to go to school. He sought refuge in a library and carried a switchblade knife that his mother bought him for protection.

But the violence continued through his teens. Brown was kicked unconscious in one beating and, on another occasion, was robbed at gunpoint.

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Fear and anger stoked a desire for justice and to protect vulnerable people like himself. He would make sure that the kind of thugs who had terrorized him and his family wound up in prison. He vowed to become a hard-charging prosecutor.

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Brown, the second of six children, was raised by his mother after his parents divorced when he was about 5. The family survived on welfare, and his mother fed her children from 50-pound sacks of rice and pinto beans. When the food ran out, Betty Sue Brown would look her oldest boys in the eye.

“I need you to be strong young men and hang in there,” she told them.

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It wasn’t easy.

In the Jordan Downs housing project in Watts, a boy once threatened to burn Ron with a cigarette unless he handed over his cash. When his family moved to Willowbrook, he lived in fear of the bigger kids who hung out at Mona Park, demanding money and inflicting the occasional beating, whether he gave it up or not.

“Four-eyed dog!” they taunted.

After Ron’s older brother was robbed at knifepoint, Betty Sue bought the switchblade knives for her oldest boys. Ron carried his to school in the front pocket of his pants. He showed it off to friends but left it untouched during confrontations.

Ron found a haven at the county’s Willowbrook library. There, he could read science fiction books without worrying who was sizing him up.

When his older brother, Richard, went to USC on an academic scholarship, Ron vowed to follow. A year later, in 1972, he did, joining his brother, also on an academic scholarship. In school, Ron began to consider becoming a prosecutor, which he saw as a way to hit back at those who had abused him.

In 1976, he enrolled at the UCLA School of Law, where he excelled in criminal law. After graduation, however, he struggled to pass the state bar exam, a requirement for practicing law.

He failed twice, each time narrowly missing out on the exam’s essay portion. In the summer of 1980, he took the test a third time and was awaiting the results when his mother underwent what was supposed to be routine surgery on an ulcer. Within weeks, she was dead at the age of 44.

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Less than three months later, he learned he had passed the bar. Brown felt an enduring guilt that his mother never saw him become a lawyer.

“I’ll never forgive myself,” he said. “She would have been so proud.”

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The young lawyer put his career plan into action and applied to the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office. He bought a dark brown sport coat and a clip-on tie for the interview.

He was greeted at the downtown criminal court building by two clean-cut-looking prosecutors. They hit it off. Then came a question.

“How do you feel about the death penalty, Ron?” one of them asked

Brown didn’t consider capital punishment an effective deterrent and believed that jurors were more inclined to return death verdicts for poor black and brown defendants than for whites.

“I’m absolutely against the death penalty,” he replied.

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He noticed the interviewers looking at each other and sensed he had given the wrong answer.

Rejected for the job, and with student loans to pay off, Brown revised his plan.

He applied to the county public defender’s office, where attorneys represent defendants unable to afford their own lawyers. It would hardly be his dream job, but he figured he could gain some valuable courtroom experience for a couple of years before he tried again to become a prosecutor.

He never mentioned his desire to become a prosecutor, and he got the job.

Brown’s first assignment was at the Bellflower courthouse, and he immediately stood out. He was one of only eight black lawyers in the office and the only one in southeast L.A. County. Some white defendants were wary.

He recalled one telling him over the phone, “I just want to make sure I don’t get that black guy.”

Brown invited the client to meet him at the courthouse to discuss his case. The man looked shocked when he arrived but never apologized.

Brown justified his defense work by telling himself that he didn’t know whether his clients were guilty. If they were, perhaps they were guilty of something less serious than the charges they were facing, he reasoned.

In his first year, Brown represented a man charged with misdemeanor assault after a fight in a Cerritos shopping mall. The client had argued with another motorist over a parking space and knocked the other driver to the ground.

The defendant told Brown that the other motorist had thrown the first punch. Several of the client’s relatives who had witnessed the confrontation confirmed his story, saying the other driver had been the aggressor.

The client’s story sounded credible to Brown, who suspected that race might have played a role in his client’s arrest. The defendant was black and the other motorist white.

The young lawyer began to worry. Most of his work involved trying to secure appropriate sentences for people who had broken the law, but this case was different. His client had no criminal record, and an assault conviction could follow him for the rest of his life.

At the trial, Brown cast doubt on the other motorist’s account and called his client to the stand, a risk that defense attorneys usually avoid. The gamble paid off. Jurors returned a not guilty verdict.

“I told you so,” the defendant told Brown after the verdict was read in court.

“Congratulations,” Brown said. “Next time, let the guy have the space.”

That case — and others like it — convinced Brown of the importance of defense work.

“I was converted,” he said. “When you get that client acquitted, there’s nothing better.”

The 6-foot-2-inch lawyer with a deep voice and an easy manner quickly developed a reputation as a savvy trial attorney. Several prosecutors and judges described him as a formidable lawyer in court, one who was upfront with adversaries.

Superior Court Judge Michael A. Cowell said Brown would arrive in court well-prepared and impress jurors with his relaxed style.

“He was so natural, so much at ease and so honest in talking to them,” Cowell said. “I thought, ‘He is going to be a star.’”

Six years after joining the office, Brown was made a special assistant, the first step toward a management career.

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At work, Brown continued to flourish, climbing through the ranks. At home, his life was struck by tragedy.

By early 2002, Jerri Antoinette Taylor, his wife of nearly 18 years, had fallen into a deepening depression after a series of minor strokes left her with a tremor in her left hand. The disability hindered the professional musician’s ability to play the bassoon and other instruments.

On a January afternoon, Brown returned to their Long Beach home to find a note of apology from his wife. “The world would be better off without me,” it said. Six days later, her body was found in the surf off Redondo Beach. She had slashed her wrists and drowned.

The loss of his childhood sweetheart was devastating.

When Brown arrived home from work each day, he sat for hours in his rocking chair, crying before falling asleep.

He underwent counseling and threw himself into the job. Over the next few years, he continued his rise through the office, reaching assistant public defender in 2006, the third-highest position in the office. He had a reputation for being accessible and willing to listen.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re the person who cleans the bathroom or a secretary or a lawyer who just finished a death penalty case or the manager sitting next to him, he treats everyone with respect,” said Elena Saris, president of the Los Angeles County Public Defenders Assn.

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When the county announced last year that it needed to replace retiring Public Defender Michael P. Judge, Brown did not put his name forward.

He saw himself as better suited to working behind the scenes than acting as the public face of the office. Besides, his main focus was caring for his father, who was dying of cancer. Brown spent his evenings with his father until his death in June.

By November, Brown, 56, was considering possible retirement. Then the county’s chief executive, William T Fujioka, asked him to submit a resume.

Fujioka had been impressed with Brown during executive meetings and had heard glowing reviews from others inside the public defender’s office. The lawyer’s personal story also resonated with him.

“He has … profound empathy for those he represents,” Fujioka said. “He’s a great L.A. story.”

After a series of interviews, the board of supervisors appointed Brown last month as public defender, one of the most important, if unheralded, posts in L.A.'s criminal justice system. Now Brown, the first African American to hold the position, manages more than 700 attorneys who handle nearly half a million criminal cases a year.

Like the young man who wanted to be a prosecutor, Brown said he still feels that offenders should be held accountable. But he also believes that his office plays a key role in defending the innocent and ensuring that convictions are honest and sentences fair.

He no longer feels anger toward his childhood bullies. Part of his job involves finding diversion programs for young offenders to help turn their lives around.

“I thought they were monsters. Now I realize they were probably just kids,” Brown said in his new office overlooking downtown from the 19th floor of the county’s main criminal courts building.

“They have their own story to tell, and if you listen to it, you can possibly change their behavior.”

jack.leonard@latimes.com

Times staff writer Sarah Ardalani contributed to this report.


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