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Mr. Castillo and 9 Years as a Santa Clara County Public Defender

Maybe that's why Mr. Castillo thought I saved his life… because I recognized it. Because I affirmed his existence and honored his humanity amidst a system that cages and shackles people, that reduces men and women to mugshots, rap sheets and code sections, that belittles human beings with labels like “defendant,” “felon,” “gang member” and “sex offender, that defines them by their worst moments.
On June 30, 2008, exactly 9 years ago today, I started working at the Santa Clara County Office of the Public Defender, fulfilling my dream of public defending in my hometown of San Jose, CA, alhamdulilah (praise be to God).

Yesterday for lunch, I walked to the local Togo's for a sandwich.  On my way back to the office after devouring my turkey on wheat sub, I heard someone yell, “Mr. Khan!” as I crossed the intersection of 1st and Taylor.  There, in the middle of the crosswalk, I stopped in my tracks and looked back to discover my former client, Mr. Castillo, calling out from the driver's seat of a pickup truck.  He yelled through his window, “It's me, Mr. Castillo! You saved my life!”

I shouted “Hi!” and asked how he was doing.  Mr. Castillo proudly said he owned his own business and that things were going well.  We waved bye after he kindly told me to move before I got hit by a car.  

I had represented Mr. Castillo 7 or 8 years ago on a felony, non-life case.  But for him, just like for so many of our clients, the case placed is his life in the crosshairs.  I don't remember getting him a particularly great deal or outcome. His case wasn't dismissed due to the discovery of exculpatory evidence through my investigation. He wasn't exonerated by a “not guilty” verdict after an epic cross examination or argument by me. Instead, during the course of my representation, Mr. Castillo merely accepted a negotiated plea bargain before a scheduled preliminary hearing.  Yet here he was, years later, recognizing me as I walked down the street, crediting me with saving his life.

As public defenders, we really do encounter people at the crossroads of their beings. And in these moments of despair and disorientation, they just need someone to look at them without judgment, to see them, to hear them and their story, to be their voice amidst the deafening calls for their  condemnation, to be in their corner, to treat them like a human being, to guide them, to kindly walk alongside them, hand in hand, towards whatever is on the other side.  

Maybe that's why Mr. Castillo thought I saved his life… because I recognized it. Because I affirmed his existence and honored his humanity amidst a system that cages and shackles people, that reduces men and women to mugshots, rap sheets and code sections, that belittles human beings with labels like “defendant,” “felon,” “gang member” and “sex offender, that defines them by their worst moments.

Today, I am grateful to be a public defender.  I'm thankful to walk with Mr. Castillo and my fellow human beings on their journeys, to help  breathe life back into them and restore their names after the soul crushing grinder of our criminal (in)justice system.  Here's to another 9 years and more, inshallah (God Willing).

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