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Death penalty defenders around the state say they are worried that the governor’s decision not to reappoint state Public Defender Lynne Coffin could mean that a political appointee with inadequate inexperience may take over the office.

Coffin learned in March that she had lost her job, but a replacement has yet to be named.

“Most of us in the defense bar were stunned,” said Wesley Van Winkle, a Berkeley-based defense attorney whose practice consists solely of death penalty cases.

Van Winkle and other attorneys around the state cited Coffin’s extensive experience — which includes arguing cases before the U.S. Supreme Court — as well as her management and recruitment skills, which they say improved morale and the quality of hires in the office. Van Winkle added that the prospect of replacing Coffin “is really worrisome” since there are few candidates with Coffin’s qualifications who might be willing to take on the post.

“It’s not like a jumping-off point for another office, or for the judiciary,” said Cliff Gardner, a San Francisco-based defense attorney who represents death penalty prisoners around the country. “Are there people out there who would do a great job? Yes. Would they apply after what they did to Lynne? I don’t know.”

Coffin’s chair has been officially vacant since April 8, when Barry Helft, the chief assistant under Coffin, chose not to continue as interim public defender, a job he held for one month.

Helft, who remains a senior deputy, said Thursday that he gave up the title because he was “doing two jobs, and my casework was falling behind.”

Helft said he has not applied for Coffin’s job, but would consider taking the post if the governor isn’t able to find another candidate with Coffin’s qualifications — “extensive post-litigation experience, administrative experience, teaching experience and leadership experience.”

Jeffrey Gale, a deputy public defender who held the chief deputy post under former state Public Defender Fern Laethem, said he had applied for Coffin’s job after Schwarzenegger’s election, but has since lost interest.

Terri Carbaugh, a spokeswoman for the governor, suggested that Coffin may have been a casualty of the governor’s hasty transition.

The post is a four-year appointment that technically expired in January, Carbaugh said. The statute calls for a 60-day extension, which would have run out the first week of March. To keep Coffin on the job, Carbaugh explained, Schwarzenegger would have had to “make an affirmative appointment” before then and was “not yet prepared to do so.” So she was let go instead.

“The fact that her term was allowed to lapse or that she wasn’t reappointed is not a reflection of the quality of her work,” Carbaugh added.

Coffin said she had no warning that she would be out of a job until the day she was called and told to vacate her office.

“I am concerned that it appears the governor’s office is politicizing the office of the state public defender,” said Coffin, who has returned to private practice in the Bay Area. “My biggest concern is that office is without anyone in charge, and I think the clients in that office deserve better.”

Chief Justice Ronald George said Thursday he, too, is concerned that “an extended period of time without a state public defender” would deal a setback in his efforts to deal with a backlog of unreviewed death penalty cases.

“The state Supreme Court is very much depending on the high quality of capital defense provided by the state public defender’s office and its sister agency, the Habeas Corpus Resource Center,” George said.

George praised Coffin for her “excellent hands-on ability as a lawyer” and the “fine administrative skills” she brought to the job of finding counsel for unrepresented inmates on death row — 127 of them at last count.

Jack Earley, president of the California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, said he was concerned that the governor might be guided by representatives from previous Republican administrations in choosing a replacement for Coffin. Former Gov. George Deukmejian, he noted, slashed the agency’s budget in half, and the current governor’s administration “is dotted with people from the Deukmejian and Wilson administrations.”

He also said he’s worried that Coffin’s replacement might be pressured to cut costs on defending death row cases.

“In the long run, it’s cost-effective to do it right in the first place,” Earley said.

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