Chief public defender to retire
After more than 30 years as an attorney, El Dorado County Chief Public Defender Rick Meyer has seen his share of high-profile cases.
There was his defense, along with attorney Steve Tapson, of Herbert Coddington, who was accused and convicted in 1988 of murdering two women and sexually assaulting two teenage girls.
There was also his defense of Lisa Platz, who was convicted in 2003 of murdering her 9-year-old daughter following a standoff at Campground by the Lake.
But the everyday work of defending people accused of all manner of crimes is just as, if not more, rewarding than the attention-grabbing cases, Meyer said during a Thursday interview at his office across from the courthouse in South Lake Tahoe. Meyer is set to retire today.
“It isn’t just the big cases – the high visibility cases – it’s the day-to-day stuff of standing up for folks,” Meyer said of why he stuck with public defense work, an area of law he never expected to pursue when he graduated from McGeorge School of Law in 1978.
But he was drawn to the intellectual challenge of defending people’s constitutional rights and working with those in need.
“I like the idea of standing up for other people,” Meyer said.
He quoted former associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Louis Brandeis when talking about his, and his colleagues’, feelings toward the sometimes misunderstood work of defense attorneys.
“The greatest threat to the liberty of citizens is not the common criminal, but rather, well-meaning, self-righteous officials cloaked with authority,” Meyer recalled Brandeis as saying.
Of the thousands of people he’s defended during his career, Meyer estimated less than 50 are really hardened criminals. Most of the time, those he represents are very good people with common problems that leave them in bad situations, Meyer said.
Even if the evidence is available to show a client’s guilt, it doesn’t paint the whole portrait of a person, Meyer added.
“If the evidence is there, we try to present their story, who they are,” Meyer said. “When we meet our maker, we want them to know the whole story.”
In Coddington’s case, Meyer said it was clear he was guilty. But Meyer recounted Coddington’s family desperately wanting people to know he wasn’t always the killer he became.
The case was very challenging, very emotional and would shape Meyer’s opposition to the death penalty.
“When you get to know them, you have a different perspective,” Meyer said.
Defense attorneys don’t often hear the words “not guilty,” Tapson said during a Thursday phone interview, but Meyer has heard it more than a few times.
He has been able to stay friendly with prosecutors and police, even after questioning their truthfulness in the courtroom, Tapson said.
“Some defense lawyers are not able to do that,” Tapson said.
Meyer’s work has extended outside of the courtroom as well.
He has been the board chair for the Family Resource Center, which provides a variety of services for low-income and Latino communities, since about 1999.
Delicia Spees, executive director of the center, said Meyer is an especially genuine person who is very influential in the community, but does not advertise his good works. He was an instrumental part of a group that helped create a soccer field near Bijou Community School, after noticing kids playing on hardpan dirt, Spees said.
“He has a passion for whatever he does,” Spees said. “He always reaches out to people in need, and he doesn’t need to do that,” Spees added.
As for his retirement plans, Meyer said he hopes to continue teaching political science at Lake Tahoe Community College, as well as work part-time as a defense attorney in Alpine County.
The 59-year-old also plans to spend more time with his two grown children and two young grandchildren. He’ll work on his admittedly terrible guitar playing, and, at some point, he hopes to point his 1987 Volkswagen Vanagon south with his wife, Elisbeth, to see where the road leads.
The rearview mirror is certain to reflect plenty of memories.
“It’s been a great run and it’s been very rewarding,” Meyer said. “I had no idea I would be here 29 years. It worked out.”