The first case Tim Bazar tried after becoming Stanislaus County’s Public Defender became the only case he tried here.
The Board of Supervisors hired him in 1996 to manage a staff of 18 deputy public defenders and other staff members, not to defend clients himself. Yet four years later, when career criminal Michael Roy Larwick stood accused of shooting Modesto police officer Steve Silva, Larwick decided he didn’t like the attorney Bazar had assigned to his case.
“It was not a legal conflict,” Bazar said. “More of a personality thing. So I went over (to the jail) and talked to Larwick and we sort of hit it off. I represented him.”
Larwick owned a long rap sheet and for a time was considered a prime suspect in the Yosemite tourist murders in 1999. When his shooting case went to trial in 2000, the jury convicted Larwick. A three-striker, he is serving a 120 years-to-life sentence and, barring a Houdini-like escape act, will never see another moment of freedom.
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With that, Bazar went back behind the desk overseeing his charge of attorneys who represent defendants unable to pay for legal counsel, but who have the same rights to a defense and due process as those who can.
When Thursday’s shift ends, so will Bazar’s tenure as the Public Defender. He’s retiring after 21 years heading the department in a 40-year career in law. His replacement, Chief Deputy Sonny Sandhu, on Wednesday looked at family photos on the wall in Bazar’s downtown Modesto office and joked, “they’re all coming down tomorrow.”
By no means judge Bazar’s career on one lost-cause trial, though. To the contrary, he did his job long and well both here and in Tulare County, where he began his career as a prosecutor in the 1970s. In fact, Bazar became the first defender from a small county to argue before the California Supreme Court the implementation of Prop. 115, which dealt with evidence defense attorneys are obligated to provide to prosecutors. He did that on two separate occasions.
A divorce compelled him to look for another job in another county, and he planned on working his way toward the Bay Area. When he hired on in Stanislaus County in 1996, he viewed it as stop on his way. Instead, he met and married Carrie Stephens, an attorney now with the Stanislaus County Counsel’s office, and stayed. His time here included all of Jim Brazelton’s reign as DA and Birgit Fladager’s thus far, as well as several court executive officers including Mike Tozzi and Rebecca Flemming, with Hugh Swift about to take over.
It’s been a rewarding career in a part of law in which the rewards are relative. Often, public defenders represent clients who are repeat offenders, or have strong cases against them. They do their best to make sure the clients’ due process is followed and to minimize the length of the sentence through plea agreements. Sometimes, it can seem like they play the role of the Washington Generals to the prosecution’s Harlem Globetrotters. But when cases go to trial, they want to prevail.
“It’s a complete injustice in the system if both sides are trying to convict a defendant,” Bazar said. “It’s only fair when both sides are doing their jobs.”
“Do we celebrate wins? Yes, we do,” Bazar said. “We have a very strong tradition of celebrating a win. We’ll also celebrate a good plea bargain. In a funny sort of way, (winning) means more to a public defender than to a DA. DAs are expected to win. When you’re a DA and lose, and you get back to the office, it’s like, ‘What went wrong?’ There’s almost the implication you did something wrong. Here, there’s no condemning you for a loss. We want to do good work by fighting hard for the client.”
Which he did, as boss, until the end. A job well done.