Public Defender Henry C. Coker announced his intention to retire this spring, after nearly three decades of service with the County of San Diego.
Coker, 66, said the time had come for him to switch gears, after a lengthy and fulfilling career. He plans on spending more time with his children and playing tennis, which has been a lifelong passion for him.
Coker has served as the County’s top Public Defender since 2009. In this role, he has managed a staff of 365 employees working out of a dozen offices across the region. The Public Defender’s Office is one of the largest legal operations in the region, representing more than 90 percent of those criminally charged in San Diego County.
“Being the Public Defender of San Diego County has been the highest privilege of my life,” Coker said. “Working with the staff here, the law enforcement community, the District Attorney, Chief Probation Officer, Superior Court, and the people we represent–it’s an enormous responsibility, but it’s been extremely satisfying.”
Throughout Coker’s career, he worked tirelessly to make San Diego’s criminal justice system as effective as possible—balancing both the rights of the accused and the safety of the public, said Ron Lane, the County’s Deputy Chief Administrative Officer for Public Safety.
“He is a leader of rare talent and he’s truly going to be missed,” Lane said.
The County expects to identify Coker’s replacement prior to his last day, March 30.
Coker, who is originally from the West African nation of Sierra Leone, immigrated to the U.S. in the 1970s. He earned his bachelor’s degree in English Literature from North Carolina A&T State University and master’s in Education Administration from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He worked as a secondary school teacher in North Carolina before moving west, where he earned a Juris Doctor’s degree from Thomas Jefferson School of Law.
Coker started as a trial lawyer in the Public Defender’s juvenile division in 1989, six months after the office was created.
Over the years, he took on some of the office’s highest profile cases, including the defense of the youngest person to be charged with murder as an adult in California at the time: a 14-year-old named Tony Hicks. Hicks pleaded guilty to fatally shooting a 20-year-old college student. The victim’s father praised Coker for helping Hicks take responsibility for what he had done.
Nearly two decades later, Coker said he’s still regularly asked to speak about the case.
“That was a challenging case,” Coker said. “It involved a lot of emotion when you’re prosecuting a child and looking at giving him the most serious penalty.”
Before his appointment to Public Defender, Coker served for 12 years as the Chief Deputy Public Defender in charge of managing all of the department’s branch offices. He also served as the Chief Deputy Public Defender for the juvenile division and Chief Trial Deputy for Child Advocacy (Dependency).
Coker oversaw significant change within the Public Defender’s Office. During his tenure, four divisions were brought under the one roof, which has increased operational efficiency and resulted in significant cost savings for the County. The Office also adjusted to an ever-fluctuating legal and political environment, with the passage of AB 109 (state mandated realignment of prison inmates to local custody and post release supervision) and of many voter-approved initiatives such as the recent Proposition 47, which reduced some nonviolent felonies to misdemeanors, and Proposition 64, which called for the legalization of recreational marijuana use in the state.
The Public Defender’s Office provides representation to those who are accused of crimes, including both adults and juveniles, but cannot pay for their own defense. The Office also assists in some civil cases such as mental health-related matters and sexually violent predator cases.