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KPBS Midday Edition

San Diego Public Defender Retires After 28-Year Career

An undated photo of former San Diego County Public Defender Henry Coker.
San Diego County
An undated photo of former San Diego County Public Defender Henry Coker.
San Diego Public Defender Retires After 28-Year Career
San Diego Public Defender Retires After 28-Year Career GUEST: Henry Coker, former San Diego County Public Defender

Henry Coker ended nearly eight years as San Diego County's chief legal defender of the indigent on Thursday.

Coker, who joined the office just a year after it was created in 1988, went to law school after a career as a high school teacher and human resources administrator. When he graduated, he applied to both the public defender's office and the district attorney's office and says he heard back from the public defender first.

"It’s a search for the truth, no matter what side you are," Coker said. "I’ve interviewed everyone hired here for at least one hour. It’s critical to me—if they don’t satisfy me that they could do either job, I won’t hire them. I want critical thinkers. You can’t defend someone if you can’t conceive how to prosecute them."

Coker said one of his most memorable cases was representing a man accused of child molestation after separating from his wife. Prosecutors offered a plea deal that would have involved no prison time; the man was facing up to 21 years in prison. But the defendant was adamant that his wife was coaching his daughter and refused the deal.

"He told me, 'I would be much more comfortable in jail for 21 years with my conscience knowing I didn’t molest my daughter. If I took the deal, I wouldn’t be able to sleep,'" Coker said. "The jurors were out for a day and a half and acquitted. He was willing to say his conscience was more important than what the criminal justice system says. It was very rewarding to stand by that person."

Randy Mize, former chief deputy public defender, replaced Coker on Friday.

Coker joined KPBS Midday Edition on Monday to discuss his career in the criminal justice system and whether his office should receive more funding.