Judge Thelton Henderson to keynote 2009 Justice Summit: ‘Defending the Public and the Constitution’


Public invited to attend free Justice Summit Wednesday, May 6, 10 a.m.-2:30 p.m., Koret Auditorium, San Francisco Main Library, 100 Larkin St., lower level, enter at 30 Grove St.

San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi led a rally on the steps of City Hall July 12, 2007, to oppose the City Attorney’s proposed gang injunctions. Adachi has long been an outstanding defender and supporter of the City’s beleaguered Black community. Photo: John Han, Fog City JournalThe U.S. Constitution requires that an accused person who lacks the means to hire a lawyer is provided one. The job of public defenders and court appointed attorneys is to ensure that our constitutional rights are protected, that all Americans are treated fairly under the law, and that injustice and governmental misconduct are exposed.

Due to the economic downturn, an ever-increasing number of people cannot afford a lawyer and must rely on public defenders and court appointed counsel for help. Yet in San Francisco and across the nation, public defense offices are facing budget cuts that will make it impossible to provide adequate representation to their clients.

San Francisco’s elected Public Defender Jeff Adachi will open the summit and introduce keynote speaker federal Judge Thelton Henderson, senior judge for the Northern District of California. The legendary Judge Henderson has made headlines in recent years by appointing a receiver to run California’s prison health system, saying evidence in an inmate lawsuit showed that inadequate medical care kills at least one inmate a week, constituting cruel and unusual punishment. The three-judge panel he heads “has ruled that overcrowding at the prisons – now filled at twice their designed capacity of 80,000 – was the primary cause of inadequate health care, and has tentatively ordered the release of between 37,000 and 58,000 inmates to local custody, treatment programs or parole,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

Senior Judge Thelton Henderson, as the first Black lawyer in the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, investigated the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four little girls. In 1982, he freed Johnny Spain of the San Quentin 6. In 1997, he declared the anti-affirmative action Proposition 209 unconstitutional, but his decision was overturned on appeal. - Photo: Mike Kepka, SF ChronicleOther summit speakers are Professor Barbara Babcock of Stanford Law School; Richard Goemann, director of Defender Legal Services for the National Legal Aid and Defender Association; Michael Judge, chief public defender for Los Angeles County, who will speak on the “Chief Public Defender’s Ethical Duty to Withdraw From Cases in Response to Budget Cuts”; Cookie Ridolfi, director of the Northern California Innocence Project; Kimberly Thomas Rapp, director of Law and Policy for the Equal Justice Society; Barry Krisberg, director of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency; Christine Voss, supervising public defender for Riverside County; and Melanca Clark of the Brennan Center for Justice, New York University Law School. A free lunch will be served at noon.

Indigent criminal defense was established as a constitutionally guaranteed right under the landmark 1963 Supreme Court ruling Gideon v. Wainwright, a lawsuit filed by a jailhouse lawyer. Yet public defenders are being forced to turn away defendants who have no other legal recourse.

No money, no lawyer, no justice

Excessive caseloads, inadequate funding, ethical breaches, politicization of the public defender system, lack of timely appointment of counsel or no appointment at all are depriving the poor of their constitutional right to representation in criminal and juvenile cases. This is the conclusion of a report released April 14 by the Constitution Project’s bipartisan National Right to Counsel Committee. The report, “Justice Denied: America’s Continuing Neglect of Our Constitutional Right to Counsel,” outlines the crisis in the country’s public defense system and offers 22 recommendations to state and federal officials to fix it.

The U.S. Supreme Court has consistently emphasized the importance of the constitutional right to counsel for those charged with a crime who cannot afford lawyers. Yet the report cites numerous cases of individuals wrongfully convicted or incarcerated for months awaiting trial due to a lack of legal representation. Many, lacking legal counsel, are forced to make decisions on their own that adversely and irreversibly affect their cases. Wrongful convictions waste public funds and erode American trust in the judicial system. The report can be read at www.tcpjusticedenied.com.

Inadequately funded public defender services threaten criminal justice system, says ACLU

American Civil Liberties Union attorney Robin L. Dahlberg testified on March 26 before a House subcommittee about the need for congressional and state oversight of inadequately funded and administered indigent defense programs. The hearing held by the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security of the House Judiciary Committee was entitled, “Representation of Indigent Defendants in Criminal Cases: A Constitutional Crisis in Michigan and Other States?”

“The state of public defense services in this country is in crisis,” said Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. “Public defense services have become a popular budget cut for many states in these tough economic times. The impact of these budget cuts is that attorneys for poor criminal defendants often have overwhelming caseloads and grossly inadequate resources. If we are going to have meaningful constitutional protections, Congress must help fix our broken criminal justice system.”

When public defenders do not have the necessary resources, their clients are wrongfully convicted, plead guilty when they should not and spend too much time in jail or prison. For example, Michigan resident Allen Fox received a 12-month sentence for trying to steal two cans of corned beef from a convenience store. Fox sat in jail for six months before ever meeting an attorney.

In another case in 2002, Eddie Joe Lloyd was released from a Michigan prison after DNA testing confirmed that he was innocent. He spent 17 years behind bars because his trial lawyer did not present a defense. Lloyd’s wrongful conviction cost Michigan taxpayers over $4.5 million.

In fact, between 2003 and 2007, attorneys in the Michigan Appellate Defender Office found sentencing errors in one third of the guilty plea appeals assigned to their office. When they corrected these mistakes, Michigan taxpayers saved $3,675,000.

Dahlberg’s testimony is available online at www.aclu.org/crimjustice/indigent/39154leg20090326.html.

Study on racial disparity in criminal justice system underscores need for effective public defenders

The need for a well-resourced and comprehensive public defense system was made evident in a study released in March by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD) indicating that African Americans and Hispanics are over-represented in the criminal justice system and more likely to require a public defender than their white counterparts.

“This report demonstrates that one of the only protections we have against the disparate treatment of people of color in the criminal justice system is a competent and effective public defender’s office,” San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi said.

The study, “Created Equal: Racial and Ethnic Disparities in the U.S. Criminal Justice System,” indicated that African Americans were detained pre-trial at 5.2 times the rate for white defendants and were 4.7 times as likely to have a public defender. Latinos were detained at 2.6 times the rate for whites and were 2.1 times as likely to have a public defender.

The study also found that people of color are more often sentenced to prison, are given longer sentence lengths and are less likely to be given probation than whites.

“People of color are more likely to have to rely on public defenders, and if we want a system that is fair, we need to have a strong and well-resourced public defender’s office. We can’t have one system for the poor and another for the rich,” Adachi said.

A December 2006 report by the San Francisco Chronicle found that African Americans in San Francisco are arrested for felonies at nearly twice the rate in Sacramento and Fresno, three times the rate in San Jose, Los Angeles, Long Beach and San Diego, and four times the rate in Oakland.

The full NCCD study can be found at http://www.nccd-crc.org/.

The 2009 Justice Summit to be held at the San Francisco Main Library on May 6 was initiated by California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, the California Public Defenders Association, the Bar Association of San Francisco and the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office. The summit is endorsed by the ACLU of Northern California, Instituto Familiar de la Raza, Legal Services for Children, National Alliance on Mental Illness, The Asian Law Caucus, Women Defenders, San Francisco La Raza Lawyers Association, Sheriff Michael Hennessey, Center for Young Women’s Development, Northern California Service League, San Francisco State Criminal Justice Club, Temple Emanuel, California NORML, All of Us or None and Legal Services for Prisoners With Children, among others.

For more information or to register, visit www.sfpublicdefender.org or contact Lea Villegas at lea.villegas@sfgov.org or (415) 575-4390.

This story was compiled by Bay View staff from San Francisco Public Defender’s Office releases and other sources.


  1. Thank you Jeff Adachi and Judge Henderson for everything. It’s pathetic that you have to do organizing work on top of your huge freedom fight because our side is too lame to be where they need to be when things go wrong. For this extra mile, I am eternally grateful and hope that in my lifetime, enough people learn about their civic duty and actually do this so more can be put into the actual fighting while they do not have to be asked to organize. We did not have enough advance notice to send more than a few people to participate but we are very grateful.

    Even though this event was strictly focused on San Francisco’s cut to the public defender’s budget, it is relevant to every city in California and your public outcry is so appreciated.

    We, the people, fail ourselves when we do not get behind candidates with dollars and organized votes that could bring someone like Jeff Adachi to power as governor.

    Our inmate lawyers in California’s prisons are literally being tortured right now which requires tremendous time and energy to protest. We must have good public defenders because the odds are stacked against the poor.

  2. Our loved ones are dying every day locked in cages in a California prison. Only by your legal efforts the CDCr is finally being forced to be one fraction accountable for their actions.

    Thanks to all of those great Judges and attorneys that attented the “Justice Summit”. Without individuals such as all of you who are giving everything you have left in life, we would sure be in a world of hurt in this Country.

    You bravely defend the constitutional right of protection under the Law to even the least of us. You fight every day in a Court of Law to defend those who can’t even afford an attorney. I fear to think where we would be in this Countries Judicial system if not for Judges such as, Judge Henderson, Judge Karlton, Judge Reinhardt, and many more. Too numerous to name. I do sincerely thank you.

  3. There are 4500 terminally ill, permanently medically incapacitated prisoners who do not need to be guarded 24 hours a day by guards earning overtime. This a huge black hole of waste and serving no good purpose. We, the people, must change the laws to prevent this humanitarian crisis from ever happening again.

    California passed Assembly Bill 1539 for an Extended Compassionate Release for the severely disabled prisoners. Will the parole board release these prisones? NO. NO. The CDCr is refusing to abide by this Law every inch of the way. STOP IT NOW. Force the CDCr to follow the Law.

    This alone would save Millions and Millions of dollars. Schwarzenegger just doesn’t get it.

  4. I do want to say thank you to the judges I was in your court room for this case on calif prison
    I just wish we could get inmates released but the state of calif just talksss and talksss and does nothing to fix this mess on the prison and more of are family members are still dying in there and drinking bad bad water more lawsuits coming .. but thank you JUDGESSS for trying

  5. Kudos to Judge Henderson for standing firm for our constitution. Your leadership and integrity are appreciated.
    Thank you for raising your voice to educate people about illegal torture, wretched health conditions, and the injustice tolerated in our criminal justice system. You are one of our heroes in prison reform.

  6. Thank you Judge Henderson and Public Defender Jeff Adachi for standing up for what is right and not what is popular or politically prudent. It is men like you who make the difference. Your actions reinforce keep our belief alive that there will be justice and that constructive solutions will be implemented.

  7. Thank You Judge Henderson for giving of your self in making things right concerning the injustice in our judical system. “If you don’t have the capital, you will receive capital punishment”. The poor are the profit in the judical system making the system produce the revenue. The mentally ill are being tortured in the prisons for suffering from severe mental disorders. They are being send to the segragated housing units and left to continually get worsen mentally while tortured. However, these inmates rarely receive the treatment that they need and have a right to. The criminal justice system is overpopulated and under equipped to deal with those with psychotic disorders requiring mental health care services. Again God Bless you Judge Henderson, Judge Karlton, & Judge Reinhardt.

  8. Dear Judge Henderson I live in Orange County Ca, a city where the public defenders do not defend the public, a city where black inmates in the Orange Countyjails are called racials, a city where the court house is full of injustice and racism,a change has to come to Orange County Ca,

    Thank You, Mary Jones
    President Of The Community Organization: “WE AS ONE” FOCUSING ON JUSTICE FOR ALL

  9. hello beautiful, you look just like my father that pasted away in august 2008. as far as i am concern you are doing more for the disenfrancied them the president of the united states (obama). we love you sweetheart keep up what you are doing. i love the way you are because you seem to be the only blackman in office that has backbone and compassion. you know what it takes to rehabilite and you give these young men a chance. you are not like most of thes white judges that when they see our boy they look down on them and give them harsh sentencing for minor ofensives. like probation and parole violation. i believe that the black men prison are victims of the system they are scapegoats. and everyone is getting a piece of them. many of the young men in prison are as good and kind as some that has never been incarcerated. many never got a chance or did not have support. i hope that you let out 70,000 of these prisoners because it place a great stain on the families. the money that is used to keep a imate in prison for minor crime such as this crack cocaine sale is not right. there should be programs to train for jobs and being successful in life. when you release these prisoners it should revitalize the communities. it will be nice to see more black men in our communities, the areas are not the same without them. there are many single females out here looking for a good man, and we can help them get themselves on their feets if they want help. god told pharoah to (let my people go).

  10. To the honorable Judge Thelton Henderson:
    Dear Judge Henderson. My name is Dion Williams prison number P-16585 CDC#. Judge Henderson, I am no longer on probation or parole, but the nature of this letter is to bring to me some clarity of what has gone awry with my personal life. Judge Henderson, I’ve been subjected to some sort of inter-net exploitation, and all of my personal and confidential past has been revealed on a specific channel that I have no knowledge of because I choose not to participate in something so egregious and dark. I believe the name of this inter-net show is titled,”Criminal”. Judge Henderson this action was taken without my permission,and I believe that my life is in grave danger and I also believe that there will be substantial consequences to pay from certain law inforcement beureaus once this letter is released. I have literally come close to many nervous breakdowns since I’ve recognized that such actions have been imposed on me. Judge Henderson as I mentioned before, my life and possibly my immediate loved are in grave danger. Please respond to me as soon as possible for the record and that I know you recieved this letter. Thank you, Dion Williams. My phone number is as follows (310) 401-4771 and my address is 515 Gayley Ave. Los Angeles,Ca 90024.

Leave a Reply