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DANVILLE — Smooth jazz plays inside a two-story brick building that speaks of crafted modesty, from the nondescript paintings of pears, flowers and landscapes to the potted plants in the corners of the lobby. Nothing inside this place conjures images of murder and molestation. Yet it’s such criminal charges that help pay the rent. This quiet firm in Danville is the home of William Gagen Jr., a one-time prosecutor who has defended, among others, priests accused of molesting children and an 11-year-old boy accused of shooting a 13-year-old neighbor. In more than three decades of practice, he’s earned a reputation as a fearless and articulate trial attorney and occasional hero to the most despised characters in the criminal system. “He has a special gift for understanding people,” said David Pastor, a Walnut Creek solo defense attorney who has known Gagen for 28 years. “I think it would be safe to say that he is the pre-eminent private criminal defense attorney in the county,” said Contra Costa County District Attorney Bob Kochly, who described his rival as “very, very well respected” and “someone whose word you could trust absolutely.” Prosecutors say Gagen brings plenty of fight to court. “He doesn’t select cases based on the chances for winning,” said Kochly. “[It's] based on a belief in some instances that the person’s cause is just. He understands everyone has a right to a competent defense, whether they’re guilty as hell, or unpopular as hell, or not.” Kochly described Gagen’s courtroom style as calm, thorough and articulate. “He’s not a screamer, and he’s not a table-pounder,” he said. But that doesn’t mean he hasn’t earned a prosecutor’s ire. Contra Costa Deputy District Attorney Harold “Hal” Jewett, who prosecuted the 11-year-old shooter, was quick with compliments for his opponent. “Like a laser beam,” he said, describing Gagen’s ability to craft a defense strategy that cuts right to the weakest point in a prosecutor’s case. But Gagen also got personal, Jewett said. Arguing the killing was accidental, Gagen described his client as a “shy, frightened boy” who was the victim of an overzealous prosecution. At one point, according to press reports, Gagen said Jewett thought of himself as “a human polygraph” and referred to him as a “face of injustice.” The statements still bother Jewett. “Mr. Gagen � took what I regarded as potshots at me,” Jewett said. “I recognize why he was doing what he was doing because he has an obligation to protect the interests of his client. But his accusations against me were unfounded and unfair.” Gagen returned Jewett’s compliments. But he wasn’t apologetic. “He’s very intense in trial and I get very intense in trial, also,” he said. “I never said anything uncomplimentary about his talent as a trial lawyer � but when you’re on the other side, it’s war.” Gagen didn’t set out to become Contra Costa’s criminal defense king. After graduating from Boalt Hall School of Law in 1968 and serving two years as an officer in the U.S. Army, the Sonora native took a job with the Contra Costa district attorney’s office. But after just a year and a half, he left to join former Contra Costa County Superior Court Judge Edward “Ted” Merrill’s law firm. Early in his career, Gagen split his time between civil and criminal cases. But eventually, he said, scheduling pressures forced him to make a choice. “I developed a better known reputation in criminal,” said Gagen, who is currently defending a client in the Clergy III sex abuse cases. “I enjoy it from a practice standpoint. It’s a faster-moving practice, and there’s more time in trial.” Although Gagen enjoys criminal defense, he says it’s not exactly a money-maker. He often charges fixed fees depending on the type of charges, arguing most clients “are not in a position to have an open-ended agreement to pay whatever your time amounts to.” But when complications arise, Gagen often eats the cost. Recently he defended a mentally ill man who escaped from a county hospital and attacked a woman in her home. During trial, the man had a psychotic breakdown and the trial had to be interrupted several times. Gagen estimates he lost between $60,000 and $70,000 in billable time. “Generally most attorneys come out behind,” he said. “Rarely do we see all the twists and turns” a case may take. Despite the pitfalls, his firm — Gagen, McCoy, McMahon & Armstrong — has made a strong commitment to criminal defense. In an era in which most private criminal defense attorneys work as solos or in small firms, Gagen, McCoy is something of an anomaly, with five of its 20 attorneys focused on criminal law. “We’re just one of the more or less original firms in Contra Costa,” said Gagen, who in 1992 became the senior partner in the firm that succeeded Merrill’s original firm. One of Gagen’s first big cases was defending Joseph Remiro, a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army. Gagen defended Remiro against attempted murder charges stemming from a shootout he had with Concord police after the murder of Oakland schools superintendent Marcus Foster 32 years ago. In a second trial, Gagen also defended Remiro on charges that he had escaped from an Alameda County jail. The jury deadlocked on the attempted murder charges, and the case was dismissed. Remiro was convicted of attempted escape and is currently serving a life sentence in prison for Foster’s killing. During the first trial, Gagen lived for six months out of a Los Angeles motel and spent his days in a bullet-proof courtroom where Remiro and other SLA members were prosecuted. “It was a very intense period of time,” he said. “In some ways I was quite fortunate at an early point of my career to have that type of case.” Gagen moved on to other high-profile cases. In the 1980s, he defended Bradley Page, a UC-Berkeley student accused of killing his girlfriend, Roberta “Bibi” Lee, on a hiking trail in the Oakland hills. Gagen called into question Page’s confession, taken from bits of a 16-hour conversation with Oakland police and later recanted. A jury acquitted Page on first- and second-degree murder charges and hung on a charge of voluntary manslaughter. Page hired another attorney for the retrial and was convicted of manslaughter. In 1998, Gagen took the case of 11-year-old Joshua Almaguer-Mendez, who was accused of murdering a 13-year-old neighbor with his father’s rifle in what prosecutors described as a sniper-like killing. The crime occurred at a time when several other murder cases against children were grabbing the nation’s attention. “There was a great deal of controversy in the legal community and in the child development community, as to, what point is it appropriate to subject a child to formal requirements of the criminal justice system?” Gagen recalled of that period. He remembers the awkwardness of trying to explain to his client whether he understood his rights. “I think it’s absurd,” he said. “Ask any kid that, they don’t have a clue.” The boy, who was charged with murder, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter. Nearing what he describes as the twilight of his career, Gagen, 61, finds the criminal justice system growing meaner. He cites the advent of Three Strikes laws and departure of court-sponsored drug treatment and work-furlough programs. He laments the general lack of treatment for sex offenders. And without naming names, Gagen said some judges have lost their independence and will almost instinctively side with prosecutors, afraid of angering the public. “It’s a very tough, unforgiving system,” he said. “I don’t think that’s not all without merit, but it so outweighs the system of rehabilitating the offender � you have to fight harder.”

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