Renegade ATTORNEY by Karen Gorden
t 8:00pm on a Tuesday night, Diane Letarte is just leaving her San Diego office and still has more than 200 miles to drive. Although pulling long hours is nothing new for attorneys in any practice area, Letarte has no option but to drive to her clients. As Lifers in California State Prisons, Diane’s clients were all incarcerated after having been convicted of 1st and 2nd degree murder, kidnap/robbery or kidnap/ransom. Not surprisingly, Letarte is one of only a few dozen attorneys in the state to work in the niche practice of post-conviction.
Standing Up For Lifers
Letarte’s decision to work in the field of post-conviction may appear brazen. However, Letarte is a bit unconventional by nature. Born and raised in Montreal, Quebec, Letarte is a licensed pilot, rides a motorcycle, skydives and bungee jumps for fun, so she’s admittedly a bit of an adrenaline junkie. But it wasn’t until 1996 that Diane entered the legal field. “I worked full time as a Software Engineer, and traveled the world for System Support,” Letarte says of her first career. An awful experience with an attorney prompted her to go to law school at night. “I was ripped off by an attorney when my father died and I hated attorneys. I felt helpless. I promised myself I would get the education and never make anyone else feel the way that I felt,” she says. After 20 years with her software company, companywide lay-offs presented Diane with the opportunity to receive severance pay, and simultaneously open her solo practice, as an “on the street, criminal attorney, doing misdemeanors, felonies, and trials,” she recalls. But a chance meeting with a fellow attorney five years into her practice introduced Letarte to post-conviction work. “At first, I enjoyed the traveling and setting my own hours. Then I began to enjoy meeting the individuals that most of the free community never gets a chance to speak to, or would want
Attorney Journal | Volume 117, 2013
to give the time of day. I read something a long time ago that really stuck with me. ‘You can easily judge the character of a person by how she treats those who can do nothing for them.’ This area of the law is very character building!” she laughs. Growing serious she says, “This area of the law carries the life of another human being in your hands. Post-conviction is a very niche area of the law, and since Marsy’s Law became effective, on-the-street criminal attorneys should not go in and wing the Parole Suitability Hearing. This can be devastating because if the client or attorney is not properly prepared, the inmate can receive a 15 year denial before getting another chance at a Parole Review.” “For example, if an inmate took a plea for 2nd degree murder of 15 to life, the last thing the inmate-client needs is to get denied for another 15 years. That basically turns his 2nd degree murder plea into a double sentence, which is worse than a 1st degree murder sentence.” As a result, many of Letarte’s clients come to her by way of referral from criminal attorneys who send their previous clients to her. The remainder of her clients are word of mouth referrals from inside the prisons. “Prisons are a very closed community. Inmates talk about good attorneys and bad attorneys,” she explains.
Although today, Letarte doesn’t bat an eye at heading into a men’s prison, she did shadow colleagues as a new attorney and she highly recommends anyone considering this field to do the same. “There is no class, and there are barely any books written about this area of the law. It is on the job training. As a woman attorney, there is no book that tells you how to dress, or talk, or what to carry or not carry when going into a High Security Level IV Men’s State Prison, such as Pelican Bay State Prison, designated to house California’s most serious
Attorney Journal, San Diego, Volume 117