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Public defender's last case before retirement one of the 'wackiest' of her career

The Santa Fe New Mexican - 4/30/2023

Apr. 30—Two men fatally shot in the small Northern New Mexico community of Petaca, a couple accused of their murder, three deceased witnesses and an unknown number of guns have created one of the "wackiest" cases Sydney West has had in her 22-year career as a public defender.

West had the case file on her desk last week as she attempted to clean out her office ahead of her retirement Friday. "This one was like a movie," she said dropping her voice conspiratorially.

Filing a motion seeking a third trial in the Rio Arriba County murder case — one in which she'd arguably done as much detective work as law enforcement — was one of the last things on her to-do list before she said goodbye to the world of indigent defense.

West said new evidence revealed during the second trial in the complicated case casts doubt on guilty verdicts that came after the first trial. Though, she likely won't be the public defender in the Tierra Amarilla courtroom defending her client if he faces a third trial. She's wholeheartedly embracing her retirement.

In her more than two decades of defending New Mexicans who face the threat of incarceration but can't afford to hire an attorney, West estimates she's resolved about 4,700 cases and taken 61 of them to trial.

Her prowess as a trial attorney — and commitment to a job others often use as a stepping stone to higher-paid gigs — has earned her a reputation that verges on legendary, even — perhaps especially — among those who've gone up against her in court.

"Sydney has been a mainstay in the criminal justice system in Northern New Mexico, and it is hard to imagine our local public defender's office without her," Chief Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Padgett Macias wrote in an email.

"As a prosecutor, you always knew what you were going to get with Sydney — a well-tempered and skilled advocate with her own unique style of persuasion," Padgett Macias added.

"Sydney embraced the complex cases and always showed up for her clients," the prosecutor wrote. "I can think of a case in 2009 or 2010 that she and I met north of Denver for pretrial interviews of out-of-state witnesses. I doubt there is an issue that Sydney hasn't litigated, and her track record of successful defense speaks for itself. I hope most criminal justice practitioners in our district had a chance to work alongside or against Sydney, as there was always a lesson learned and usually a laugh because she never left her quick wit and personality outside the courtroom door."

And that's from opposing counsel.

Fellow public defender Craig Hay choked up when he spoke about West in a recent phone interview.

"Hundreds of people go to law school every year and all of us are like, 'I want to be an attorney who is courageous and smart and creative and fearless,' " he said. "That's the type of attorney you envision being. But only very few end up becoming that. And Sydney is that; she's the attorney you wanted to become."

Hay said he's learned a lot working with West over the past few years, during which they shared many long rides to Rio Arriba County's district courthouse in Tierra Amarilla.

Among the lessons he's learned from West: "Not to be afraid to take a case to trial. To trust your instincts and believe in the fight."

"What makes her really special is how she is with clients," Hay said. "She listens to them like they are the most important people in the world. She treats them like she would treat her children, like she treats us younger co-workers and staff in the office. She treats them like she cares about them because she really, truly does.

"I gave up having heroes years ago," he added. "But she's a hero. She really is. She's not just a wonderful attorney; she's a wonderful human."

Hay said he drops West's name when trying to make inroads with new clients, criminal defendants whose lives and circumstances can make them slow to trust a man in a suit.

"I tell clients I know Sydney West," he said. "I probably will until the day I'm retired."

West, 61, is from Virginia and met her husband — former fellow public defender Damian Horne — when they were in law school at William & Mary. They practiced together in the small community of Gloucester before moving to Santa Fe, Horne's hometown.

She began working in the Public Defender's Office in 2001 when their son — now serving in the U.S. Army in Germany — was just 18 months old.

"When we came here, I was not even going to practice until I got my son in kindergarten," she said. "I was gonna be traditional like that. Then I got talked into this.

"My husband was the director of training, and basically everybody in the Santa Fe office had quit, and they were down to only a handful of attorneys, and Damian was like, 'You've got to come work! I don't have anyone,' " she said.

"So that's why I came here because I was, like, you know, begged," she joked.

A few years later, when West was eight months' pregnant with the couple's daughter — who is now a college student — she handled a murder trial.

Horne told her the work would be easy, she said, and in some ways, it was. After 14 years in private practice without the aid of investigators or experts, she found the Santa Fe Public Defender's Office comparatively well resourced.

"I thought this was the most fun job," she said in the recent interview at the Public Defender's Office on Guadalupe Street. "I still think this is the most fun job that you could ever have. Criminal law is really fascinating."

She's been offered other jobs over the years, usually after winning a big case, West said. But she has no regrets about staying with the Public Defender's Office.

"I like these clients, and they need a good attorney," she said. "I really have helped a lot of people, honestly."

West said she's always taken the "counselor" part of the phrase "counselor and attorney" to heart.

"When I first started, I was more like an enabling mother," she joked. "Like, 'Oh it's just burglary; it's no big deal. I'll get you a deal.' Now I've become more of a counselor. Like, 'Yeah, that was bad. And you can't continue to do this.' "

When she was told that a fellow defender had called her the best trial lawyer he'd ever seen, West demurred.

"I'm not at all," she said. "I'm probably like the most driven public defender ... and here's my biggest asset: I'm brave. That's really what it is because I'm not really that talented or anything. I'm just brave. I've somehow convinced myself I don't have to be scared in front of 12 people that I don't know and will never see again, and it makes me be able to go over the edge."

That's not to say West is given to courtroom histrionics. She's not. The 5-foot-10 blonde cuts a striking figure in the courtroom. But her style tends to be conversational, common-sense.

"Sydney has always been a strong advocate for her clients," state District Judge Mary Marlowe Sommer said in an email last week. "She is very comfortable in the courtroom. At trial, she was able to tell her client's story, and defend her client in a straightforward way, which jurors appreciated."

"I try to be nice," West said. "Until I have to be mean."

"Sydney West is a brilliant attorney who has spent decades fighting for justice and upholding the rule of law," West's boss, District Defender Julie Ball, said in an email Friday, hours before a party honoring West was scheduled to start.

"Over her many years with the Law Offices of the Public Defender, Sydney has seen tremendous changes in our criminal courts and was instrumental in bringing about some of those, including the creation of drug courts that have proven effective in reducing recidivism. Many of her clients, plagued by mental illness and drug addiction, have been guided to treatment and recovery by her inspiration and support.

"I have seen her draw judicial ire to herself for the sake of a client or co-worker; I have shed tears during one of her passionate arguments before the Court; I have witnessed her devotion to her clients and her tireless pursuit of justice. Sydney West leaves our office having made a positive difference in the lives of thousands of New Mexicans. She is a part of our family here at LOPD, and we will miss her dearly. But she leaves having made our lives richer and our community better."

Despite her love for the work, West said last week, she won't miss it and looks forward to gardening and perhaps writing. Before attending law school, she graduated from the University of North Carolina in 1983 with a degree in journalism.

"I'm not gonna look back," she said. "I feel like I've done the best I could do with this. I've certainly made mistakes and regret the way some cases have gone, but I've done my best, and I think I've done it as long as you can do it. I'm not getting jaded at all, but I'm just tired. ...

"I think it's time to play," she said. "Really play!"

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