MARTINEZ — In his 10 years as Contra Costa County's top public defender, David Coleman ruffled the feathers of more than a few prosecutors, yet they say they'll miss him.
"The guy has been a constant thorn in our side, in a good way," Deputy District Attorney Douglass MacMaster said. "We have fundamental disagreements about various workings in the criminal justice system, but he's a noble adversary. The guy is brilliant."
Coleman, a 63-year-old Alameda County resident, will retire July 31 after 35 years with the Office of the Public Defender, leaving behind a legacy that stretches beyond becoming California's first African-American public defender when he was appointed by county supervisors in 1999.
Coleman was the only child of a father who was a community-college math teacher and a mother who was a social worker. He was born and raised in a poor, staunchly segregated community in rural West Virginia before the family moved to Tucson, Ariz., where he was the only black student in a 3,200-student high school.
He graduated from Yale College and Harvard Law School before joining the Contra Costa Public Defender's Office, where he was lead counsel on seven capital cases, only one of which resulted in a death sentence.
He is one of the county's most well-respected trial attorneys, as well as the "resident elocutionist," said Contra Costa County presiding Judge Mary Ann O'Malley. Coleman describes himself as loquacious, competitive and caffeinated.
"There's no such thing as a short conversation with David, I and think that's widely known," laughed District Attorney Robert Kochly.
As the top public defender, Coleman is proud of recruiting and maintaining a diverse staff of lawyers (60 percent women and 25 percent nonwhite) with distinguished academic records despite funding shocks to the office. Under Coleman's leadership, the office is known for providing first-class legal representation for indigent defendants and as a great place to work, said Professor Stephen Sugarman, of UC Berkeley School of Law.
Coleman spent 20 years working nights as an adjunct professor at the university, teaching two-thirds of the students who took criminal procedure and evidence courses. He is retiring from the California Judicial Council's criminal law advisory committee, where he's held the public defender's seat for 12 years.
Coleman is known for challenging convoluted laws, and the practices of police, prosecutors and the courts. He fought for the airing of public documents, cried foul when the office's contract to handle juvenile dependency cases was awarded to a Santa Clara County firm, and publicly criticized prosecutors for excusing black jurors in cases involving black defendants.
The state Court of Appeal is currently mulling whether to hear Coleman's argument that prosecutors illegally listen to jail inmates' phone calls without their attorneys' permission, which he says is a violation of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel.
"I think there will be a way to continue to provide advice and help on the projects I started," Coleman said. "I don't want to the think the DA's office is going to get away with anything just because I won't be around."
Coleman's challenges certainly slowed down the process at times, but they played an important role in criminal justice system, Kochly said.
"I have a great deal of respect for David," Kochly said. "I think he has really looked out for individual clients, a lot more so than a lot of public defenders. He wasn't one to grind his clients through the mill."
In the course of Coleman's career, laws affecting criminal cases have become increasingly punitive, making the need for public defenders to strongly advocate on behalf of the poor and downtrodden even more critical, said Marita Mayer, head of Contra Costa County's Alternate Defender's Office.
"A lot of clients are guilty, but they have constitutional rights; and those rights are precious," Mayer said. "He never, never discouraged anyone from fighting and going to trial. His legacy is doing the best job for our clients."
Coleman said the biggest challenge for his successor will be dealing with county government's diminishing resources.
"I have tried to keep our office at certain parity with other criminal justice partners, and pleased this county hasn't isolated the defense function," he said. "What we do is not necessarily popular with the public, who may not want to see resources go to the guilty ... but you can't convict people without due process.
"We protect individuals against a very powerful government," Coleman said. "The balance of justice requires a strong defense function, and I think our office has provided that."
Chief deputy public defender Robin Lipetzky will being taking the helm of the office while the county conducts its search for Coleman's replacement. The job is expected to be filled by fall.
By then, Coleman and his wife of 31 years will have shuttled their daughter — the younger of their two children — off to college, and Coleman could be on to his next pursuit, likely to be law-related and in the teaching or nonprofit arena.
"I'm hoping it's a change of direction," he said, "and I hope the direction is not toward the golf course."
Reach Malaika Fraley at mfraley@bayareanews group.com.