Public Safety

Public Defenders Strengthen Ties Across Border

In the past, if a San Diego criminal case involved official records or witnesses south of the border, deputy public defenders at times struggled to locate the document or person, weakening their cases.

A new binational agreement between the San Diego County Public Defender’s Office and the Baja California Public Defender’s Office has changed many of those outcomes for the better.

A liaison in the Mexican office now assists the San Diego attorneys and their investigators before they go to Baja California, and often accompanies them during witness interviews. Baja authorities also help expedite securing official documents.

“This agreement gives us the ability to be more effective in the representation of our clients, especially our clients of Mexican origin,” said Primary Public Defender Chief Deputy Randy Mize. “It’s created efficiency and a level of safety for our investigators traveling south of the border.”

In exchange, the San Diego County Public Defender’s Office is helping to train their Mexican counterparts in trial skills. Mexico and other Latin countries will transition next year to a trial system similar to ours that uses oral arguments from lawyers and a live presentation of evidence and witnesses. Currently, trials are conducted through written arguments reviewed by a magistrate.

The binational agreement was signed Feb. 17 in Tijuana at a ceremony attended by many Baja California dignitaries as well as Public Defender Henry Coker, Mize and Deputy Primary Public Defender Jesus Romero. Representatives of the San Diego Alternate Public Defender Office and the Multiple Conflicts Office were also present.

Mize said the agreement came about after Romero noted the challenges that County deputy public defenders faced in trying to conduct investigations in Mexico. Romero, who teaches trial skills in Mexico and other Latin American countries, came up with the concept of offering a teaching program to Baja California in exchange for assistance from the Public Defender’s Office.

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“We’ve already seen some incredible results,” said Mize. “They have acted as liaisons and escorts to help direct us to witnesses in criminal cases that we’ve been appointed on.”

Mize said that in the past, when his staff tried to obtain official documents, it may have taken up to half a year. Recently, Public Defender’s staff asked for an official document from Ensenada and it was ready within three days. 

Meanwhile, the County Public Defender’s Office held a training in Tijuana and two in downtown San Diego for Baja attorneys and investigators. The six-hour sessions cover a trial from the investigation to the courtroom and are conducted on weekends and holidays. Ten deputy public defenders donate their time to conduct the trainings, so the work has zero financial impact on their office.

The course deals with different aspects of litigation, and attorneys can practice conducting a direct examination of a witness, as well as a cross examination. They also learn techniques of making objections and closing arguments. Attorneys learn to build their theory of the case and what type of experts and witnesses they would need to be able to bring their case to the magistrate, as well as how to negotiate for plea bargaining.

Mize said previously, when public defenders had to go to Mexico to locate witnesses, they would send two Spanish-speaking investigators. Those staffers often had to go into risky areas and didn’t get cooperation from the public. Now, Baja public defenders assist with the groundwork and arrange for meetings with witnesses in a formal setting.

Investigators now can conduct interviews in secure areas such as any Baja California Public Defender office. Because Mexican witnesses sometimes do not understand our judicial system and are afraid of disclosing information, the agreement now allows a member of a Mexican judicial authority to explain our process and function, said Romero. The Baja attorneys also give Public Defender investigators more access to witnesses because the Mexican public defenders help the people understand the San Diego County deputy public defender’s role to help, he said.

The agreement is set to continue for a year with an option to renew if it is mutually successful.

Yvette Urrea Moe is a communications specialist with the County of San Diego Communications Office. Contact