Voices: Quin Denvir

“I have represented several death row inmates who were able to avoid execution, and I lost one, Tom Thompson. He was very likely innocent of capital murder, and his case has been chronicled by Judge Reinhardt as a miscarriage of justice.”
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Last March, criminal defense attorney Quin Denvir sent a letter to California Gov. Jerry Brown asking him to commute the death sentences of the approximately 750 men and women on death row.

In the letter, which was obtained by Denny Walsh, a reporter for the Sacramento Bee, Denvir wrote that he has “been haunted by the death penalty” since 1977, when it was reinstated in California. “Now, in Pope Francis’ Year of Mercy, I would like to see California stop its, as Justice Blackmun put it, ‘tinkering with the machinery of death’.”

A little over two months later, on June 3, Quin Denvir died of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis at the age of 76.

For his colleagues, friends, and clients his death was a shock. The letter to Brown was not.

In the letter, Denvir refers to a particularly controversial death penalty case he defended, saying “I have represented several death row inmates who were able to avoid execution, and I lost one, Tom Thompson. He was very likely innocent of capital murder, and his case has been chronicled by Judge Reinhardt as a miscarriage of justice.”

One of Denvir’s co-counsels on the Thompson defense, Andy Love, wrote about the case in our January issue. “I think about how hard and long he fought for our client, Tom Thompson, and how devastating both personally and professionally it was when Tom was executed despite several meritorious claims establishing the unfairness of Tom’s trial and substantial questions that were raised about his innocence,” Love says.

The Thompson execution in 1998 “definitely haunted him,” says Joseph Schlesinger, who also worked closely with Denvir on the case. Schlesinger says on the night of the execution, he and Denvir were with Love in Love’s office in a “silent vigil until the execution was carried out.” Knowing it was “all over” Schlesinger said he thought the three of them would remain together until midnight, when the execution was scheduled. So it was a surprise to him when Denvir left, saying he was going to pick up his wife, Ann, who was protesting at San Quentin, and go home to Davis. When he found out later that Denvir and Ann had gone to their parish church that night to cry and pray for Thompson it made sense. “It was important for him to be with his family in his church,” says Schlesinger. “His religion was important to him, but he didn’t wear it on his sleeve. He was very private about it.”

To Walsh, Denvir’s vigil in his church was “his last act for his client. He tried always to do the right thing. He certainly would have felt that [sending the letter] was the right thing to do,” said Walsh. “It spoke volumes about him and the movement that he represented.” And the fact that Denvir never wanted the letter to go public was also in character. After Walsh received a copy of the letter “it never entered my head to contact Quin,” says Walsh. “He wouldn’t have wanted me to write the story, and as a reporter, that would go against what my instincts are. And as his friend, I would have felt a real tug to do what he wanted.”

Denvir spent most of his career defending the underserved. After earning a law degree from the University of Chicago in 1969, he worked for a corporate law firm in Washington, D.C., went on to work with the nonprofit California Rural Legal Assistance, and then as a public defender in Monterey County. In 1978, Gov. Brown named him state public defender, a position he held for six years. As state public defender, he created a death penalty unit, in response to the first California supreme court affirmance of a death penalty sentence after the state reinstated capital punishment in 1977.

He created it “with much foresight. . . not so much so we could defend only our clients and cases, but more as a resource for private lawyers who were working on them,” says Jeannie Sternberg, who was hired by Denvir as a deputy state public defender in 1980 and joined the death penalty unit two years later. “We were trying to identify common or systemic issues percolating in all the early cases, and trying to improve the level of advocacy around the state, including our own. Quin’s idea was that we would reach out to private counsel, offer our assistance and talk over legal issues. It was especially helpful to the appellate lawyers, who tend to be isolated. They could call in and ask questions. In my view, [that unit] created by Quin led as much as anything to holding the line against executions for years.”

Sternberg notes that even as state public defender, Denvir continued to have his own caseload, representing “capital clients and not just the famous ones. Every single one of his capital clients was important to him.”

Denvir returned to private practice in 1984 until 1996, when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit appointed him to the post of federal public defender for the eastern district of California. In that role, too, he personally took on capital cases.

Denvir retired from the federal public defender’s office in 2005, although even in retirement he continued to take cases that interested him. His list of clients throughout his career was impressive, including high-profile clients Ted Kaczynski (whom he kept off death row in a plea deal with prosecutors), Billionaire Boys Club member Ezra Eslaminia and Cary Stayner.

In June’s Federal Defender Newsletter, Chief Judge of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Sidney Thomas wrote that Denvir “was one of the most admired and respected federal defenders in the nation.” And he “was one of the best oral advocates I have encountered in my years on the bench. . . . He was always the consummate professional…and a great friend of the Circuit.”

“He was remarkable in court,” says Sternberg. “Quin didn’t go into court to argue with or lecture anyone; he was having a conversation with the judges. He engaged the court. That was his style, that’s who he was.”

Schlesinger, who was hired by Denvir to head the capital habeas corpus unit at the federal public defender’s office, which Denvir also created, said “his belief in propping up the underprivileged was nowhere more stark than it was in his opposition to the death penalty. He was an amazing person, a brilliant lawyer, compassionate in his professional and personal life. He meant a great, great deal to me.”

For Andy Love, “He was already a legendary appellate lawyer when I first worked with him in the early 1990s, for good reason, but despite that status he was remarkably accessible – generous with his time and knowledge, and willing to hear and consider various and opposing points of view.” (Love also wrote a personal tribute to Denvir in the following story.)

His death is a “big loss,” says Sternberg. “It’s a big loss to clients. It’s a big loss to everyone opposed to the death penalty.”

One of his clients, a man Denvir saved from death row, after hearing of his death, wrote that, “Quin always made me feel less the pariah I am and more of the human I can be.”

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