Archive for the ‘Public Defender’ Category

Contra Costa Public Defender wants names of Antioch, Pittsburg officers under investigation by DA

Tuesday, March 29th, 2022

McDonnell issues statement about investigation, wants to conduct own review of cases; Becton hasn’t responded

By Allen D. Payton

In a letter to Contra Costa District Attorney Diana Becton on Monday, Contra Costa Public Defender Ellen McDonnell asked for the names of the Antioch and Pittsburg Police officers who are the subjects of an investigation into possible crimes of moral turpitude. The DA’s office announced last Friday the investigation which began last Wednesday and “a review of both active and closed cases involving these officers…to evaluate whether those cases are now compromised.” (See related article)

McDonnell is also asking for all the current, pending cases the involving the officers so her office can conduct a separate review. As of 5:00 p.m. Tuesday, McDonnell said she had not received a response from Becton.

“To date, I have not been provided with any information about what this investigation of the officers is about,” McDonnell later shared.

Following is the letter:

“March 28, 2022

Diana Becton

Office of the District Attorney

900 Ward Street

Martinez, CA 94553

Dear Diana,

In light of the recent media disclosures regarding conduct involving moral turpitude on the part of officers from Pittsburg and Antioch Police Departments, I am requesting that you identify all officers from those departments currently under investigation by your office. We believe that such a disclosure is mandated by the United States Constitution, XIVth Amendment, Brady v. Maryland (1963) 373 U.S. 83 & progeny, and California case law.

I am also asking that you identify all cases currently pending that include any of the involved officers, as well as all previous cases involving those officers. Please provide us with a list of such cases in which the client is or was represented by the Office of the Public Defender or the Office of the Alternate Defender.

While we understand from your press release that you intend to conduct an internal review of affected cases, we respectfully request that you identify those officers so that we can conduct our own review according to our own practices.

Thank you in advance for your assistance and cooperation with this matter. If you have any questions about this request, please let me know.


Ellen McDonnell

Public Defender Contra Costa County”


According to, in the case McDonnell cited, the court found, “The government’s withholding of evidence that is material to the determination of either guilt or punishment of a criminal defendant violates the defendant’s constitutional right to due process.”

McDonnell Issues Statement About Investigation

The Public Defender issued the following statement Tuesday evening:

“I am deeply concerned about these revelations.  Our office first heard about this investigation when the District Attorney’s Office issued a press release on March 25th.  We immediately requested that the names of any involved officers be released to our office so that we could begin the process of reviewing impacted cases and determining what role these officers played in any arrests or convictions.  Timely transparency is necessary to ensure due process of law and the fair administration of justice for our community and for those impacted by our criminal legal system, some of whom may be currently incarcerated based on the word of these officers.

This investigation into the conduct of officers from both the Pittsburg and Antioch Police Departments will potentially impact many hundreds of cases.  This includes not only current cases where these officers are witnesses, but also previous arrests and convictions involving these officers.  It is important to determine whether these officers were under investigation and suspected of committing crimes of moral turpitude while they continued to remain on the force and continued to arrest individuals, to author police reports, and to testify as witnesses in criminal court.”

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Contra Costa Supervisors appoint Ellen McDonnell as county’s new public defender

Thursday, December 16th, 2021

Makes permanent position for Interim Public Defender after 20 years with the department; will earn $433,641 in annual salary and benefits

New Contra Costa Public Defender Ellen McDonnell. Source: CCPD

By Allen Payton

As previously reported, during their final meeting of the year on Tuesday, the Contra Costa Board of Supervisors promoted Interim Public Defender Ellen McDonnell as Contra Costa Public Defender at an annual salary of $340,510 in addition to $93,131 in pension annual compensation.  She will officially take over the role of Public Defender from the retiring Robin Lipetzky effective Jan. 1, 2022.

She started with the department in 2001 and will oversee a $36 million budget and 145 employees.

McDonnell holds a Juris Doctors degree from California Hastings College of the Law and a Bachelor of Arts degree and double major in Spanish and Italian from Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.

She has been a member of the California State Bar since 2011.

When reached for comment District 1 Supervisor John Gioia showered praise on the county’s new public defender.

“Ellen has been at the department for several years, so, it’s great to elevate to the top position someone who has worked their way up in the department,” he said. “She understands the issues, has support of her staff and will be a great public defender.”

“Ellen understands the constitutional balance in our system, for those who are accused, so innocent people aren’t convicted,” Gioia continued. “She has been very involved in re-entry solutions. She and the department have helped individuals successfully, and safely, return to housing and employment, which lowers the chance of repeating offenses and keeps the community safer.”

McDonnell had been serving as the Interim Public Defender for Contra Costa County since August, she shared. According to the Contra Costa Public Defenders’ website,  during her two decades at CCPD, Ellen has specialized in representing clients in serious felony cases, been the public face of the office throughout the community and the local criminal court system, and led a dramatic expansion in innovative and holistic defense programs. Most recently, as Chief Assistant, she managed CCPD’s operations and oversaw the office’s divisions. As Interim Public Defender, Ellen stewards the office’s commitment to client advocacy, high-quality litigation, and holistic defense.

“I’m so honored to have been appointed by the Board of Supervisors with the recommendation of County Administrator Monica Nino,” McDonnell said. “I am thankful for their leadership and the trust that they’re placing in me with this appointment.”

“I’m excited to continue to lead an office of highly skilled and talented attorneys, investigators, social workers, legal assistants and clerical staff, and continue to serve the community of Contra Costa,” she continued.

“The mission of the Public Defender’s office is to vigorously defend our clients at all stages of the criminal justice process,” McDonnell shared. “A core part of our mission is also to bring our clients back into the community with support that leads to better outcomes for those we represent, their families and the community at large. We do that by connecting our clients with community-based solutions for housing, employment, healthcare and mental health resources.”

“When we look at the whole person in stabilizing individuals, we play a critical role in contributing to public safety,” she concluded. “Our office will remain committed to addressing racial disparities in the local criminal legal system and implementing new, needed, legal reforms.”

Since becoming interim public defender, McDonnell has been and will continue serving on the county’s Racial Justice Oversight Body which focuses on that commitment.

Ellen joined CCPD in 2001 after receiving her Juris Doctorate from UC Hastings College of Law, where she was a member of the Hastings Law Review. She represented clients with misdemeanors and felony cases, and has tried numerous homicide and life cases. Ellen is a skilled trial attorney and a fierce advocate, especially for those suffering from mental health conditions.

Ellen led the expansion of CCPD’s Clean Slate program and spearheaded community outreach efforts in response to the passage of Proposition 47 in 2014. Ellen coordinated and led numerous Clean Slate Day community events. She collaborated with justice system stakeholders and community-based organizations in order to assist thousands of community members in clearing their records and providing a path to rehabilitation.

Ellen has been at the forefront of implementing legislated criminal justice reforms in the Contra Costa legal system, including Prop 47, Prop 64, Felony Murder Reform, and Bail Reform. Through Ellen’s leadership, Contra Costa County has seen a reduction of incarceration rates, improved sentence equity, the minimization of court-imposed debt, and the elimination of barriers for impacted people.

Ellen has also collaborated with local groups working towards a more just and safer Contra Costa.  These include the county’s Pretrial Services work group, Contra Costa LEAD diversion Local Advisory Committee (LAC), the Prerelease Planning work group, the Smart Reentry Task Force, the Alliance to End Abuse Core Project Team, and the Steering Committee for the Reentry Success Center.

Ellen helmed CCPD’s holistic defense approach.  She expanded the scope and reach of the office’s services through grant funded programs, garnering state and federal recognition as a model for other defender organizations.  In 2016, Ellen became the supervisor of the office’s reentry programs unit, managing CCPD’s AB109 budget and securing philanthropic and governmental funding for reentry services. Ellen also launched the Early Representation Program (EarlyRep) dedicated to preventing failures to appear in court and diverting cases from the criminal justice system. EarlyRep was awarded the Defender Program of Year by the California Public Defender Association in 2019.

Ellen secured funding to launch the Holistic Intervention Partnership (HIP), a collaborative public-private partnership which offers intensive case management, funding for housing services, and other critical resources to those impacted by our criminal legal system. CCPD was one of only two Public Defender’s Offices in the state to receive Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) funding for innovation in indigent defense.

Ellen is regularly invited to speak about holistic defense and implementing criminal justice reforms.  She has presented to many groups including the California Judicial Council, the US Department of Justice, National Legal Aid and Defender Association (NLADA) Chief Defender Council, and the American Society of Criminology.

Ellen was appointed by the Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court to the Judicial Council’s Price of Justice Initiative: Ability to Pay Workgroup, the Futures Traffic Workgroup, and the Traffic Advisory Committee.  She was also appointed as a member of the Executive Steering Committee of the State Board of Community Corrections tasked with making recommendations for Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) funding.

Ellen, who grew up in West Virginia and Florida, is a resident of Walnut Creek, where she lives with her husband and two children. Ellen speaks fluent Spanish, and she is proud to be a lifelong Contra Costa Public Defender.

Dan Borsuk contributed to this report.


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