Longtime San Diego criminal defense attorney Stephen Cline collapsed in a downtown San Diego courtroom Tuesday while arguing a pretrial motion in a 27-year-old homicide case, and later died after being taken to a hospital.
His sudden death both stunned and saddened his colleagues as well as judges and prosecutors, who knew Cline as a dedicated defense lawyer — whether working for the Office of the Public Defender, as he did in two separate stints, or while he worked in private practice in downtown San Diego.
The cause of the collapse is not known. Cline, 58, was about 30 minutes into what was going to be a lengthy argument in Department 2002 in front of San Diego Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Fraser when he suddenly stopped speaking and fell to the ground. His wife was in the gallery to listen to the arguments.
He was quickly given emergency aid including the use of a defibrillator, according to Chief Public Defender Randy Mize.
Cline was transported to Sharp Mercy Hospital, where he was later pronounced dead, according to the Sheriff’s Department.
“We are collectively crushed,” said Mize, who has known Cline for three decades. He had seen him on Friday at a farewell party for Mize, who is retiring at the end of this week, and he described Cline as happy and enthusiastic. Cline was a resource and mentor for many younger lawyers in the office, Mize said, and consulted with colleagues who were defending homicide cases.
Cline was widely known and respected as a dedicated defense lawyer who fought hard for his clients, both those who were facing minor charges and those facing more serious felony charges. His advocacy on behalf of his clients was straightforward and often blunt, but done without histrionics and always grounded in the facts of the case.
“He was one of those no-nonsense guys, very zealous about defending his clients,” said San Diego Superior Court Presiding Judge Michael T. Smyth. He first encountered Cline in the early 1990s when Smyth worked a prosecutor in the San Diego City Attorney’s Office and Cline was in his first stint as a deputy public defender.
“He was a tough adversary and a great friend,” Smyth said. He said over the past year Cline had applied for an appointment as a Superior Court judge with the office of the governor and was supported by many others on the bench.
Cline came to San Diego from Sacramento to attend California Western School of Law, according to an online biography. He interned and later clerked with the public defender’s office and, after passing the state bar exam in 1993, went to work there. Nine years later he left and opened his own practice, then returned to the public law office several years ago.
A fixture in the courthouse, Cline handled several notable cases through the years. He defended one of two men who confronted then Metropolitan Transit System Chairman Harry Mathis inside the garage of his University City home. Mathis was pistol-whipped and then forced inside a bathroom with his wife and a neighbor while the thieves ransacked the home and set part of it alight. Cline’s client pleaded guilty to 11 charges and was sentenced to 93 years in prison.
He also was a part of several cases with unusual outcomes that became part of courthouse lore. In 2012, a defendant in the final stages of a murder trial whipped out a razor blade and slashed the cheek of his then-defense lawyer in front of the jury. The man afterward insisted on representing himself in the last part of the trial, and Cline stepped in as an advisory lawyer. The man was convicted.
And in 2013, Cline witnessed the unusual end of the murder trial of Danne Desbrow, a client who was convicted of murder. The judge in the case sentenced Desbrow to 53 years to life in prison at the end of a tense and emotional sentencing hearing. Then, minutes after levying that term, Judge Patricia Cookson granted a request from Desbrow’s fiancée — and married the couple in the courtroom. A shackled Desbrow and his bride shared pieces of cake, which had been baked by the judge.
Cline later said he was unaware of the pending nuptials and called it an “unusual day.” And true to form, he later told a reporter he was more perturbed that the judge had quickly turned down his motions for a new trial and a delay in sentencing at the start of the hearing.
District Attorney Summer Stephan said that Cline was respected by prosecutors in the office. “He was the epitome of the kind of person you want in that important position,” she said. “He cared very deeply for every one of his clients.”
Judge Fraser, who witnessed the collapse, praised the response of the Sheriff’s Department and said his staff was shaken by the incident. He, too, has known Cline for years. “He was an outstanding attorney,” he said. “This is so heartbreaking.”
This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.
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