An Inside Look At our Capital Defense Unit With Sara Jewett, Supervising Deputy Public Defender
September 14, 2017
Sara Jewett knows how difficult life can be. Some of it comes from her experience defending clients who are facing the death penalty. Some of it comes from her personal life when she was young.
Sara Jewett is a Supervising Deputy Public Defender for the Capital Defense Unit. She has courtroom experience with trying murder cases and an appreciation of how important the situation is.
“The people we deal with face the worst penalty possible,” Jewett said. “This is literally a matter of life and death.”
Jewett worked in the Public Defender’s Office in San Diego and Riverside counties before joining the San Bernardino County Public Defender in 2014. She did capital defense work in Riverside during her tenure at that office.
Ms. Jewett became a Public Defender because she wanted to do trial work and interact with people in the community.
“Sometimes people I helped would see me at the mall and express their gratitude for my help,” Jewett said. “It was like giving them their life back.”
The nature of the Capital Defense Unit requires the top level of legal representation because of the extreme penalty. There are three litigators, three investigators, social service practitioners, and clerical staff. The level of involvement with clients involves details throughout the lives of the clients.
Ms. Jewett said the first difficulty is establishing a rapport with the client.
“A client won’t open up immediately,” Jewett said. “You have to gain their trust and learn about their personal experience. Sometimes you can connect by talking about things that are important to them such as whether they played sports or other things. Many of these people have been abused and have mental illnesses, but never had access to treatment.”
As a supervisor, Ms. Jewett said she helps to make sure clients are connected to services which are available to them. “We spend a lot of time ‘hand-holding’,“ Jewett said.
“Our clients start out as a babies, just like everyone else, and they have experienced unique challenges. Some of them suffer from mental illness,” Jewett said. “The public has a fear of our clients, but what people don’t understand is that these illnesses can be overcome with access to treatment.”
In addition to interactions with death row inmates, the Capital Defense Unit team members also need to have contact with family members and reach out to people who may offer evidence of mitigating circumstances. Finding people can be difficult because of time, distance, and accessibility.
Ms. Jewett has a couple methods of coping with stress. One is meditation, and the other is being a voracious reader. She said she reads two or three books per week.
Ms. Jewett grew up in Minnesota and was in foster care. After turning 18 and “aging out” of the system, she attended Texas Christian University. She paid her own way before stopping midway through her second year when she ran out of money.
She moved to Sacramento and worked three jobs simultaneously. One of those jobs was at law firm, which is when she first contemplated becoming a lawyer. She went to UC Santa Barbara to complete her undergraduate degree before going to UC Hastings College of Law in San Francisco. She is continuing her education by studying for a Masters’ in Public Administration at California State University, Long Beach. She has been married since 1995 and has three children.
The challenges in her life and career lead to one of her axioms, “every cloud has a silver lining.”
(Article written by: George Alfano - Public Defender Administration)
BACKGROUND ON CAPITAL PUNISHMENT:
Capital Punishment has been a controversial topic in California for many years.
Capital Punishment was first enacted into law in 1872. While most elections and referendum issues have supported capital punishment, recent elections have been close.
In 2016, there were two referendum questions concerning the death penalty. Proposition 62 proposed ending the death penalty. Proposition 66 would have retained the death penalty and placed restrictions on appeals.
Proposition 62 was defeated by a 53.2 percent to 46.8 percent margin. Proposition 66 was approved by a 51.1 to 48.9 percent margin. There are currently court challenges to Proposition 66.
In 2012, a ballot measure to abolish the death penalty received 48 percent of the vote while 52 percent voted against abolition.
California’s death penalty was revised when the Supreme Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional as administered in 1972. All prisoners on death row had their sentences changed to life with the possibility of parole.
The death penalty was reinstated in 1977. There were no executions from 1968 to 1991. The first execution after reinstatement was in 1992. Since then, there have been 13 executions with the last one being in 2006.
California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Site:
Death Penalty Information Center (favors abolition of death sentences):