Crime & Justice

Ronald Brown on challenges he faces as LA County's new public defender

Ron L. Brown was appointed on Jan. 4, 2011 as Los Angeles County's Public Defender. He is the County's first African American to be appointed to the post.
Ron L. Brown was appointed on Jan. 4, 2011 as Los Angeles County's Public Defender. He is the County's first African American to be appointed to the post.
courtesy Ron Brown

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In his first week as Los Angeles County's new public defender, Ronald L. Brown said he would avoid wrongful convictions of people who are misidentified as culprits in crimes.

Brown replaces Public Defender Michael P. Judge, who had served in the post since May 1994.

Brown, the County's first African-American to hold the post, told KPCC's Steve Julian today that bad identifications of suspects by victims and witnesses is a major problem. He wants to combat this by training police "not to put all their eggs in that basket."

"People are given lineups, the lineups are influenced by the officers," he said. "They may not do this consciously. They may be doing this subconsciously ... Unfortunately, innocent people go to jail."

Brown brings nearly 30 years experience in the department, defending juveniles, the indigent and others who can’t afford a lawyer. He spoke to Julian about rehabilitating prisoners, avoiding wrongful convictions and the role of race in arrests and prosecutions.

When asked about the disproportionate number of blacks and Latinos incarcerated, Brown said he believes there is a problem with racial profiling.

"If an officer has predetermined that the client is guilty because he's in the wrong neighborhood, because he is Latino, or because he's black, many times our clients may not have that alibi excuse that will get them off, and our clients are on that road to wrongful conviction," he said.

Brown cited the example of Cornelius Dupree, who spent 30 years in prison in Texas before being freed when DNA evidence showed that it was a wrongful conviction.

"You saw a couple of days ago where that young man in Texas – well, he's not a young man any longer – was released after several decades in prison, wrongfully convicted."

When asked if Brown finds himself defending clients based on race more than actions, Brown sighed.

"We try not to make it a racial issue. We try to defend people based on the mistaken identities, but many times, we do have to use race, because cross-racial identification is a problem," he said.

Brown said he doesn't have the funding from the county necessary to do his job. He said he'd be making some changes, largely necessitated by budget cuts during the worst budget crunch in county history.

Brown said he'd have to get creative to make way for the millions of dollars in cuts he anticipates the county will be forced to make. That may include managerial changes and "moving some people around," Brown said. Brown will have to find a way to reduce the budget, which totals about $174 million, while ensuring that the office's clients are well served.

"I applaud the Board of Supervisors obviously for putting their faith in me, but we'd love more funding," Brown said. "One of the problems we have is that people want to spend money on prisons ... Public defenders' offices throughout the state and the country are on the short end of the stick."

Supervisor Mark Ridley- Thomas applauded Brown's appointment.

"Ron Brown brings a deep knowledge of the Public Defender's office, a wealth of experience and a profound commitment to providing high-quality legal services to the poorest of the poor," Ridley-Thomas said.

"Ron is a well-loved son of the Second District, and his journey from humble beginnings to today's appointment ... is a source of pride and inspiration," the supervisor added.

Brown was born in Utah to a working-class family of 10 children. The family moved to South Los Angeles and relied on food stamps and other public assistance, Ridley-Thomas said.

Brown earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Southern California and his law degree from UCLA.

KPCC wire services contributed to this story.