The Defender

If you cannot afford an attorney, Heidi Holmquist may be provided for you



Inside the drab, weather-beaten shingled public defender's office — which could be described as the architecture of obscurity — is a windowless office that public defender Heidi Holmquist has turned into a little beacon of buoyancy.

In her pink-striped office, she sits at a desk piled with stacks of criminal case files, the records of people caught in the worst moments of their lives — often desperate, addicted or mentally ill, sometimes all three. From here, Holmquist helps to manage 2,800 cases at a time at a salary lower than similar positions in other counties.

In six years as a Humboldt County public defender, Holmquist has won two murder acquittals at trial, and overseen the dismissal of another murder charge, on top of her ongoing management of hundreds of cases ranging from misdemeanors to felonies.

She is, of course, not alone. There are three county offices of public defenders dedicated to helping the indigent who run afoul of the law — 15 attorneys in all who each manage a similar caseload.

But at 31 years of age, in a county far from home, in an underfunded department, Holmquist's successes in the courtroom are noteworthy, her energy and commitment to the often misunderstood and maligned duties of the public defender unflagged.

Jason Arreaga gripped Holmquist's hand as hard as he could as a clerk read his verdict on Feb. 23. Arreaga had been accused of a 2014 double murder in Fieldbrook, and had spent almost a year and a half in the Humboldt County jail. A trial in September 2015 had ended in a hung jury, and the 30-year-old was facing life in prison without the possibility of parole.

As the verdicts were read, "Not guilty of second degree murder, not guilty of voluntary manslaughter," Arreaga became emotional, Holmquist said. She did, too. He would end up staying in jail several more weeks on an unrelated charge, but Arreaga had been acquitted.

Holmquist said the jury's finding speaks for itself. During the trial, she focused on the Sheriff's Office investigation, saying deputies had quickly identified Arreaga as the suspect and "never looked seriously at anyone else." Holmquist convinced the jury there wasn't enough evidence to convict Arreaga, who's now back in his Lake County home.

Holmquist said Arreaga wasn't your typical client accused of double murder. He was polite and patient, she said, despite the mistrial and being far from his family.

"I remember being upfront with him from the beginning," she said, telling him that going to trial in a year would be fast. "Because as much as a person wants their trial as soon as possible — because they want to get out — we can't do that. We can't just go to trial immediately. We have to do what we need to do."

Holmquist said Arreaga was always patient with her, but it didn't mean she could drag her feet. "Sometimes you have to think, 'OK this person is locked in a cell 23 hours a day,' and you have to put that in perspective when you're working on it. It's hard, when someone is in that mindset of, 'I didn't do it so I shouldn't be here,' to explain to them that 'the police think that you did it. And the district attorney thinks that you did it. And now we have to overcome that and it takes some time.'"

Public defenders play against a stacked deck. When it comes to trials, Holmquist said, "theoretically the defense should always lose because ... [prosecutors] get to choose their cases. They choose the ones they believe have enough evidence to show beyond a reasonable doubt that it happened."

At any point, a district attorney's office can choose to dismiss charges. "I don't get to do the same thing," Holmquist said. "I take the case no matter what the circumstances are."

And Holmquist's success is remarkable. In six years she's successfully defended two homicide cases and seen another dismissed. State statistics on murder convictions were unavailable, but data show that out of 300,000 felony arrests in 2014, 80 percent were resolved in court. Only 0.1 percent of the total resulted in acquittal.

In the end Arreaga's patience paid off. Holmquist said he was "extremely grateful of the process and the jurors who were able to listen to the case and take that responsibility."

And for her part? "It gives me faith the system is working," she said.

Holmquist looks young but polished. She has decorated her office with thank-you cards from former clients, photographs and several shelves stacked with dozens of high heels she wears exclusively for court appearances. She didn't always picture herself as part of the criminal justice system that sees hundreds of thousands of people accused of crimes in California every year.

When Holmquist was 10, her family moved to a small town in the outskirts of San Diego, where she attended high school. She was the 2002 Ramona Rodeo Queen, a detail, she said with a laugh, that she debated sharing.

She attended college at the University of California Davis, opting to attend McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento afterward. "I think I always knew I would do something like be a lawyer, but I never imagined I would do something like [public defense]," she said. "When I started law school I was terrified of public speaking. I was horrible."

But she got to know public defenders and went through the university's trial preparedness program, which has students carry out mock trials. In her last year of school, she got an internship at the Yolo County Public Defender's Office, which she called a "great experience." There, under supervision, she carried out trials in a real court system — and that experience made her hungry to pursue public defense.

Humboldt County's public defender's office was one of the first where she applied after school. "I had no idea where Humboldt County was or what I was doing, but I just wanted to do this work so badly I didn't care where it took me," she said.

Despite the less-than-sterling image public defenders are saddled with, Holmquist said she found a calling in the practice.

"You have a certain level of freedom, you get to experience a lot, you get to represent all sorts of people and you get to do it in a way that you're not influenced by how much money the person can pay," she said. "And you have a wealth of knowledge around you."

She loves the community and natural beauty of the area and, despite her family being far away in Southern California, she's found a second family of sorts in the attorneys and staff members of the public defender's office.

Holmquist's first big case was already a decade old when she came on board in 2011. Joey Miller, then 43 years old, was accused of the 2002 stabbing murder of Eureka resident Beverly Jean Jacob, and had sat in jail for months since his arrest by Eureka Police.

Miller had been in and out of prison for most of his life, developing drug addictions along the way. Years after Jacob's killing, police had found traces of Miller's DNA — along with that of three to four other people — on her clothing.

The county, spread thin with a large number of murder cases, contracted with a private firm to hire Greg Elvine-Kreis to defend Miller. Elvine-Kreis, now the head of Humboldt County's Conflict Counsel, an arm of the Public Defender's office, was six months into Miller's case when Holmquist started expressing an interest.

She'd been doing misdemeanors, Elvine-Kreis said, and with her boss' approval she was soon an eager second chair on the Miller defense.

"She jumped in with both feet and assisted on every level of research," Elvine-Kreis said. "She was an integral part of that defense team."

It was the first murder case that had gone to trial for either attorney, and Elvine-Kreis said there was a great deal of pressure because both thought Miller was innocent.

When Miller's jury went into deliberations, Elvine-Kreis said he and Holmquist went back to the public defender's office to wait on a verdict. "It's a hard time as you're waiting, wondering what's going to happen, how long it's going to take."

While they fidgeted, Holmquist occupied herself by finding a civil case out of Florida that applied to Miller's situation. When someone who has been jailed throughout his or her trial is acquitted, it's standard practice for them to be taken back to the jail after the acquittal for processing and to gather belongings. This can take four, five, maybe six hours, Elvine-Kreis said. But Holmquist found a case that allowed for acquitted defendants to walk out of the courtroom. She and Elvine-Kreis rushed to the judge with this information.

And when Miller's verdict came back not guilty, rather than being handcuffed and returned to his jail cell one last time, Miller walked out the front doors of the courthouse with his mom. "Needless to say, it caused quite a stir up at the courthouse," Elvine-Kreis said.

That story, he said, is an example of Holmquist's character: She's not content to sit and wait for an answer when there's more that can be done for her clients. And, he said, that enthusiasm hasn't waned in her six years on the job.

But Holmquist's character — indeed, the reputation of a public defender — is not immediately apparent to many people, clients or otherwise.

"My style, when I talk to people, I'm not a person who's going to sugarcoat things. I tell [clients] up front, 'This is a very serious case, and this is what you're looking at, and I know you don't want that so this is what we're gonna do so that doesn't happen.' That's a hard pill to swallow."

And public defenders are constantly fighting stereotypes. "Dump truck" and "public pretender" are common nicknames that she addresses earnestly with clients. "That's absolutely not something I'm going to let you think or say," she said she tells them. "I'm going to work hard and you're going to see and I'm going to change your mind."

Arreaga said it took Holmquist most of a year to gain his trust. "It was really hard for me to trust my life in her hands," he told the Journal on the telephone recently.

"It took a long time. The case went so slow, I barely got to see her in court and see what was going on," he said. The prevailing attitude among his fellow inmates, he said, was that if you got a public defender you were screwed.

"There were a lot of people who didn't have good impressions of her either," he said. But as the case went on, his faith in Holmquist grew. "From the gate she did not take it lightly. She acted like it was a big responsibility — which it was."

He said Holmquist "blew him away" during his first trial, which ended in a hung jury. By the second go-around, he trusted her completely. "I don't think I could've done better with any amount of money," he said. "I can't say enough how great she was. I owe her my life."

For her part, Holmquist said Arreaga was a model client — helpful, engaged, understanding and patient. And that helps, she said, because representing someone facing life in prison is hugely stressful. "You dream about it. You wake up at 2 in the morning, [when] everything is an impossible crisis that you're never going to be able to solve. During a trial, your life changes ... even in small ones. You're protecting a person."

Holmquist believes strongly a public defender's role is to provide constitutional protections to the indigent, but she also said landing a public defender shouldn't be seen as a bad break.

Public defender jobs are sought after, largely because of the legal experience they offer, especially to fresh-out-of-law-school attorneys. While caseloads are typically high for public defenders (and pay relatively low — Holmquist earned about $70,000 in 2014 according to Transparent California, while public defenders in other counties and private attorneys easily earn six figures), Holmquist said that real, in-the-courtroom practice on a variety of cases is invaluable experience for an attorney.

On top of that, public defenders have a whole office to turn to for advice — fellow defenders, investigators and support staff who often have years of experience.

"Having a public defender — and a public defender's office — behind you is a pretty powerful thing to have," Holmquist said. "It is true that we have a lot of clients and a lot of cases and a lot to do. But — I can speak for all of Humboldt County's public defenders — our heart is in it. We're trying to do our best all the time."

That position may be lost on the community at large, where public defenders are met with a different type of mistrust or disdain.

"Why do you represent guilty people?" is a common refrain, Holmquist said, one she's even heard from her family.

"It's not about being on the good side or bad side," she tells people. "It's just about making sure it's fair, making sure that the clients' needs are protected and that their point of view is seen.

"Some of the people that you represent are not good people, that's definitely true. But ... there's so much more to the story; about how a person got there, and why a person did something, and what the punishment should be, and is the punishment fair? Does it help protect society? Does it make it so this won't happen again?"

And the role of a public defender ends up being much more than defending a person accused of a crime. Homlquist finds herself being an educator: helping people who often haven't finished high school to figure out complicated legal procedures. She's a translator, expressing the desires of her clients — unversed in legalese — to judges and relaying orders back to them. Public defenders find themselves being social workers, pointing clients toward services they can seek when their cases are resolved that will help keep them from reoffending.

Finally, representing some clients can lead to a sort of attachment, although Holmquist jokes that she tells clients after their cases, "I never want to see you again." Holmquist was a surrogate family member of sorts to Arreaga, whose parents lived too far out of the area to visit him while he was in jail awaiting trial, and she still checks in on him occasionally. She and Joey Miller's mom are friends on Facebook.

"I've never thought of it as 'you're representing the bad guys,'" Holmquist said.

Murder trials are relatively rare, but Holmquist said because of the high stakes, they don't often get pleaded out. Assistant District Attorney Zachary Curtis, who prosecuted Arreaga's murder trial, said he's had nothing but good experiences working with Holmquist.

"I've found her to be aggressive, very, very clever, very well prepared," he said, as well as "highly ethical. ... I have a great deal of confidence she does everything in her power to represent her clients."

In addition to her successful acquittals, Holmquist had another murder case dismissed. On Sept. 15, 2013, 33-year-old Joshua Burrell was released from the Humboldt County jail about half past midnight. He made his way two blocks up the street to the Royal Inn where, during an apparent fight, he was stabbed once in the chest. He died at St. Joseph Hospital. Several days later, Eureka police arrested William Flores, and then-Deputy District Attorney Elan Firpo announced Flores would be charged with Burrell's murder, as well as gang-related allegations.

A couple weeks later, the case against Flores was dismissed and he was released from jail, his $1.5 million bail lifted. At the time, Firpo did not rule out Flores as a suspect, and hinted in a statement to the Times-Standard that her office might re-file charges. It never did.

And while the dismissal of charges may seem like a victory for Flores and his attorney in the matter — Holmquist — it didn't end there. She chalked the dismissal up to the unique circumstances of the case — "It was one of those anomalies; that is not something that should happen or normally would happen," she said — but she kept working on Flores' behalf. And Flores was recently granted a finding of factual innocence, a court-approved expungement, of sorts, based on a motion Holmquist made showing the court there was no evidence upon which a reasonable person would find Flores guilty.

Not all cases go that way, of course.

In 2013, Holmquist represented Anthony Lane, an Alderpoint man who'd been charged with the murder of Walter Herold Craig Jr. Within six weeks of his arrest, Lane had seen the evidence against him and pleaded guilty. "The police did their investigation, the client saw the investigation, we went forward with his wishes to just be guilty as soon as possible and it was done very quickly," Holmquist said.

While it's a stark juxtaposition with her other murder cases, the Lane case doesn't necessarily represent a loss. Most criminal cases are pleaded out — it's what holds the American criminal justice system together, what allows small courts, prosecutors' and defenders' offices to handle the thousands of ongoing cases.

The Humboldt County public defender's office handles an ongoing caseload of about 2,800. According to approximate 2014 numbers, public defenders handled an average of more than 200 felony cases a year, well above American Bar Association standards of 150.

Legal counsel for every American is a core tenet of the Constitution's 6th Amendment, and the responsibility of offering that representation falls to counties.

Large caseloads are not unique to Humboldt County — the Bar Association's Criminal Justice Section Chair in 2011 addressed a "perennial financial crisis in indigent defense services." That is, public defender's offices are almost universally underfunded.

That problem has become more acute locally, Holmquist said. More cases are going to trial — whether as a result of changes in the prosecutor's office, the impacts of Proposition 47, or other unseen forces — without additional help for public defenders.

In addition, Humboldt County has been delivering Measure Z tax revenue to the sheriff's and DA's offices — increasing the number of arrests and criminal cases. "We have more law enforcement and we have more attorneys on the other side and we haven't seen any increase on our side," Holmquist said. "Keeping up with that on our end has been a challenge."

She and others in public defense refer to the criminal justice system as a "three-legged stool" consisting of law enforcement, prosecutors and defenders. Without enough defenders, case backlogs grow, charges are dropped for lack of representation and public safety is threatened — the dreaded revolving door. Funding the other legs of the stool is politically popular, but is the public defender's office a low priority for budget decision makers, the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors?

"I think it's pretty obvious that that is the case," Holmquist said. "You can put all the boots on the ground that you want ... but those boots don't mean anything if the attorneys aren't there to handle the case once it gets filed. That not only keeps the wheels of justice from being gummed up, it protects vulnerable citizens. "Without an attorney, the power of the government is so great. You only get one person to help you but we're that one person. ... We get to help them and ensure that their rights are protected, that their interests are protected: Are you going to be able to get student loans in the future? Are you going to get deported? Are you going to be able to get a job? Are you going to get kicked out of your housing with your family?"

Holmquist's office, under the leadership of Public Defender Kevin Robinson, fights for funding, but it's also looking at a novel approach to defending. Robinson, with the support of Holmquist and other attorneys, hopes to turn the public defender's office into a sort of outpost of social services; to have Social Security, immigration attorneys, mental health counselors and other safety net representatives available to immediately assist the people who end up as defense clients.

Holmquist said she's not planning to go anywhere anytime soon. She has nothing but positive things to say about the local defense bar — public and private — and the Humboldt County judges she works with regularly. And she would like to help the public defender's office grow into a social service-oriented program.

Holmquist is hopeful funding that kind of project will become more politically viable, that people will start looking at rehabilitation as the most viable answer for the vast majority of repeat offenders with mental health and addiction issues.

"We can fund the criminal justice system all we want but how do we get people out of it?" Holmquist asked. That kind of philosophical musing might be above the pay grade of a young public defender in a remote corner of California. But so might be working for years to clear a client's name, or finding a rare loophole so an innocent man can walk out of court — instead of back to his jail cell. To Holmquist, it's part of the job.

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