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Quixote's Last Trial (Maybe)

By Kari Santos | Mar. 2, 2015

Law Office Management

Mar. 2, 2015

Quixote's Last Trial (Maybe)

A Jesuit-priest-turned-defense attorney looks back on his career.

At 14, I decided to become a lawyer. I'd read a book with an Atticus Finch-like character. It wasn't To Kill a Mockingbird, but it was about a lawyer who gets an acquittal for his client, a black man accused of murder.

But in 1959, while away at college, I made a decision to become a person of faith. It was not unexpected: I'd grown up in Ennis, Texas, in an intensely Catholic family. Also, my mother was a particularly kind and generous person, and she taught me everything I know about compassion. I remember that when my father died - I was eight - she was at our back door crying in the arms of the black ladies who came to visit from "the flats," which in those Jim Crow years was a neighborhood of shacks - without sewers, or power, literally and figuratively.

My conversion occurred after joining the Newman Club, an organization for Catholics at colleges that have no Catholic affiliation. In 1961 I travelled to a Newman Club convention in Berkeley, and that led me to join the Jesuits the following year. I was ordained a decade later. Still dreaming of studying law, I got accepted to the UC Davis law school. In my spare time I worked in the school's Prison Law Clinical Program, handling cases under supervision.

Eventually I partnered with Mike Satris, a law school classmate, and Catholic Social Services to open the Prison Law Office in 1976, just outside the gates of San Quentin State Prison. Unfortunately, the partnership with Catholic Social Services quickly soured. They wanted to maintain a cordial relationship with the prison to complement their affiliation with its visitors' center and a marriage counseling program. We wanted to sue the prison system. After six months they fired me, and for the next 15 years I worked with the Prisoners Rights Union, trying to improve prison conditions.

All the while, I said Mass whenever I could. But though I loved the Jesuits, I was intensely lonely. I began to drink too much and fall in love too easily. Still, I agonized over whether to give up my calling. I finally followed the teaching of St. Ignatius of Loyola, who reminds us that finding what we really want to do leads us to what God wants us to do.

I left the Jesuits in 1992 to marry Cynthia, a truly beautiful Chinese-American woman with long black hair and a take-charge attitude. Recently a neighbor brought us presents from Mexico: a small statue of Don Quixote and another of a pioneer woman. I thought, that's us! It was Cynthia who told me that if we were to be a family, I had to give up the Prisoners Rights Union and earn a real living.

So we started a small criminal defense practice in Sacramento. Cynthia ran the office. I took every kind of case, and got a reputation as a fighter for prisoners' rights, particularly after criticizing the way the sheriff ran the county jail. After twelve years Cynthia insisted it was time to retire (I turned 65), and in 2004 we closed the office.

These days I look back and wonder, after all these years trying to change the criminal justice system, what's my legacy? I believe it is this: a message to young people that once you're in that system, it will keep you, make you dependent, and trap you for life.

Although retired, I occasionally take cases. A few months ago I defended Augustine, a 28-year-old man accused of being in the Norteño gang. He has learning disabilities, can't read, and served time for prior strikes. This time around, he was simply in the wrong place with the wrong people. A jury found him not guilty on the first three charges, and the deputy DA decided to dismiss the fourth.

It was a case I could end my career on - maybe - knowing I still had the ability to create the opportunity for a new life. "You've been given another chance," I told Augustine.

"I'm going to clean up my life," he replied.

It was a moment of grace for both of us, and for me, at 75, more proof of the relentless power of compassion.

Paul Comiskey is a retired criminal defense attorney, a former Jesuit priest, and co-founder of the Prison Law Office. He and his wife, Cynthia, live in the Sierra foothills outside Newcastle.


Kari Santos

Daily Journal Staff Writer

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