Steve Harmon '72: In Defense of the Underdog

For Steve Harmon ’72, loyalty is not just a mantra. It’s a way of life. Whether it’s in his relationships with clients, family or protégés, his approach to criminal defense—and life— fosters lasting bonds. And it’s a lesson he imparted at his first meeting with his staff as the new leader of the Riverside Public Defender’s Office in April 2013.

“You will treat every client with dignity and respect as you would want a lawyer to treat your loved one, your mother, your father, your daughter, your son, etc. You keep your clients informed of everything you do, you visit them often, you let them know what’s happening at all stages of the proceeding,” he told the group of attorneys, investigators and staff. “If you do all of those things, leaving no stone unturned at any point, you’re going to have a really wonderful relationship with your client.”

Harmon has had plenty of opportunities to hone that philosophy, having tried more than 350 jury trials. And he practices what he preaches, cultivating relationships with clients and staying in touch with them long after court proceedings have ended. “People come back who are doctors years later who say, ‘Thank you. You may not remember me, but my life was at a crossroads,’” he said, noting that he still receives cards from former clients and their family members.

Harmon’s sense of loyalty stretches over many aspects of his life. Before taking his current office, he was in private practice with his son, Chris, for 13 years. During that time, his son grew to become one of his closest and most trusted confidants. When he took the helm of the Riverside County Public Defender’s Office, one of Harmon’s first acts was to recruit an attorney he coached on a high-school mock trial team. Harmon stayed connected to his protégé, who captained the team to a national championship in 1994, and now he is Harmon’s right-hand man at the Public Defender’s Office.

Although he has been in private practice for most of his career, Harmon had a long association with the Riverside Public Defender’s Office. He served as chief administrator of Criminal Defense Lawyers, which represents indigent defendants in Riverside County when the public defender has a conflict.

With two teachers for parents, Harmon says that he could have easily ended up in the classroom instead of the courtroom. He sees the parallels between litigating and teaching. “When you think about it, being a trial lawyer is all about explaining a topic in clear terms to a group of students, and for us, that’s the jury,” he said. If you’re not able to do what teachers do to make us understand, you have no hope.”

Criminal law attracted Harmon early on. “I think my criminal law practice was formed at a very early age,” noted Harmon, who recalls Fr. Richard Vachon as one of his favorite professors. “I was thrilled with my Criminal Law class,” remembered Harmon, who took as many criminal law related courses as possible during his time as a student.  He externed at the United States Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles, allowing him to spend a semester watching trials. “Those are big opportunities,” he said. ”It shaped me.”

Over the years, Harmon has cultivated an interest in standing up for the underdog. “I think we’re criminal defense lawyers because in grade school we were never brave enough to stand up to the bully. And I always felt guilty about not doing it,” he recalled. “Now we’re going to stand up to the criminal justice system and say, ‘You’re not going to send him to prison unless you do all the right things, do it in the right way, have proof beyond a reasonable doubt and give him every right.’”

Harmon has handled a wide range of cases, but it was a 2011 representation of an ex-cop on murder charges that brought him the most publicity. Harmon appeared on Dateline to discuss the case of his client, Blair Christopher Hall, a former police officer charged with murder in connection with the drowning death of his wife in the couple’s hot tub. While the case landed Harmon on national television, he put the matter in perspective: “That Chris Hall Dateline case may the most important case in your career. But to your client – whether it’s a petty theft, grand theft auto, run of the mill drug case or a murder case – his or her case is the most important case in their whole world, and you have to treat it like that. “