Orange County supervisors on Tuesday appointed Sharon Petrosino, a 30-year veteran of the county Public Defender’s office, to lead the agency on a permanent basis.
Supervisors’ unanimous vote ended a months-long search for someone to head up a staff of over 200 lawyers who represent criminal defendants too poor to afford their own attorney, as mandated by a 1963 U.S. Supreme Court ruling. The move isn’t official until a new contract with Petrosino is negotiated and approved by supervisors in the next few weeks.
The appointment of Petrosino, who has held the job on an interim basis since December when former Public Defender Frank Ospino stepped down to accept a Superior Court judgeship, comes amid a particularly high-profile period for the agency. Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders has made national news over the past couple years for bringing to light widespread misconduct by local prosecutors and sheriff’s deputies in their handling of an informants network inside county jails.
The scandal involves misuse of informants to gain incriminating statements, withholding of evidence from defendants, and alleged perjury by law enforcement. Several criminal convictions, including for murder, have been overturned so far as a result.
Sanders hailed Petrosino as a fierce advocate for impoverished clients.
“I think it’s a really good day for the Public Defender’s office. She’s been a tireless advocate for the indigent for pretty much her entire career,” Sanders told Voice of OC after the appointment Tuesday.
“I have every reason to believe we’re going to continue along the path we’ve been traveling…She’s been here her whole career. She’s a true public defender. There’s really no doubt about that.”
Petrosino also drew praise from supervisors Todd Spitzer and Andrew Do, who have both worked in the criminal justice system.
“You’ve been a very, very loyal and good steward, Sharon, in the Public Defender’s Office,” said Spitzer, who worked as a prosecutor in the District Attorney’s office and has known Petrosino for two decades.
Spitzer said the two have known each other in the courthouse trenches, “sometimes laughing, sometimes wanting to kill each other.” as trial attorneys often do.
Do, who worked with Petrosino in the Public Defender’s office in the 1990s, echoed Spitzer’s comments and said her appointment disproves accusations that supervisors were trying to “de-fang the Public Defender’s Office” or “save a job” for Do.
The agency has about 400 employees – including attorneys, support staff and management – and a budget of $74 million.
Petrosino has worked at the Public Defender’s Office since 1985, the year after she passed the California bar exam. She’s represented poor clients in a variety of criminal cases, including homicides, death penalty cases, and appeals.
For her part, Petrosino thanked the Board of Supervisors, saying she’s “incredibly honored and humbled” to have been chosen to lead the agency, which she called the best public defender’s office in California.
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.