Passionate defense attorney was an advocate for poor

rahumada@modbee.comJanuary 24, 2014 

Ramon Magaña, 67, died this week at his home under hospice care after a sudden, short illness. He was diagnosed with a brain tumor Jan. 3, 2014.

MARTHA CARLTON-MAGAÑA

Ramon Magaña was a calm, quiet, reserved criminal defense attorney. But some of his colleagues say he also was a “powerhouse,” defending all his clients with dignity and passion.

Mr. Magaña, 67, died this week at his home under hospice care after a sudden, short illness. He was diagnosed with a brain tumor Jan. 3.

He and his wife, Martha Carlton-Magaña, who also is a criminal defense attorney, shared a private practice in Modesto. They were married 34 years and have three children: Christopher, Matthew and Jane.

Mr. Magaña was born in Modesto and raised in Riverbank. He was part of the first graduating class at Davis High School in Modesto in 1964. Jim Autry was part of that same inaugural class, and he has been Mr. Magaña’s friend since then.

“He was somebody who stuck to his principles, no matter what,” Autry said.

He said Mr. Magaña paid his way through college by working in the canneries in Riverbank, alongside his father and uncles.

Mr. Magaña graduated from University of California, Berkeley, in 1968 and earned his law degree at UCLA in 1974. He also rose to the rank of lieutenant in the Navy.

Mr. Magaña later worked as a public defender in Alameda County and director of migrant services for the California Rural Legal Assistance.

Carlo Garcia got to really know Mr. Magaña after they became lawyers, even though their families had known each other since the 1930s in Michoacan, Mexico. The attorneys shared office space for about three years in downtown Modesto: Garcia a personal injury attorney and Mr. Magaña a criminal defense attorney.

“He was the ultimate advocate,” Garcia said about his longtime friend. “He believed in helping poor people.”

He said Mr. Magaña would stand up aggressively for his clients until the very end, but he never got loud or offensive. “He was the ultimate gentleman in and out of court,” Garcia said.

Mr. Magaña had been taking death penalty cases for 25 years. In 1993, he helped Jason LaMarsh avoid death row. He told The Modesto Bee in 2004 that he was successful “because we took time to develop and prepare our defense.”

LaMarsh was one of five men who killed four people in a Salida duplex; the trial was moved to Alameda County because of massive publicity.

“He was a man of great passion, a talented lawyer and a great family man,” said Stanislaus County Deputy Public Defender Greg Spiering.

Mr. Magaña was the third defense attorney to take on the Columbus Allen Jr. II case, but Allen persuaded a judge to release him. John R. Grele, of San Francisco, who had signed on to help Mr. Magaña with death penalty issues, took over the case.

Allen was indicted on capital murder charges stemming from the shooting death of California Highway Patrol Officer Earl Scott near Salida in February 2006. Allen pleaded guilty in August 2010 to killing Scott and was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Stanislaus Superior Court Judge Ricardo Córdova said Mr. Magaña was among only a handful of Latino attorneys when he returned to Stanislaus County to start his practice. There are dozens now, he said, and Mr. Magaña had a positive effect on that.

The judge remembered when they were both attorneys in the mid-1990s and staunch opponents of state Proposition 187, a voter-approved state initiative to cut government services to immigrants who entered the country illegally. It later was struck down in court. Córdova said he and Mr. Magaña raced down to Davis High to try to convince students there that walking out of school to protest against the legislation might send the wrong message. It was too late, the students told the attorneys – they were going to take a stand.

“He was right there, in the thick of it,” Córdova said about Mr. Magaña. “It’s a tragic loss for the community.”

Mr. Magaña’s family has scheduled a rosary service at 5 p.m. Wednesday at Franklin & Downs McHenry Chapel, 1050 McHenry Ave. in Modesto. A funeral service for Mr. Magaña is scheduled at 11:30 a.m. Thursday at St. Francis of Rome Church, 2827 Topeka St. in Riverbank.

Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at rahumada@modbee.com or (209) 578-2394. Follow him on Twitter @ModBeeCourts.

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