Ernie Castillo tries the big tough cases. No set of facts is too explosive for him to deal with. He made time for the podcast interview while a jury deliberated the fate of his client in a murder trial. He explains how the Courtroom is set up and how a jury deliberates in the time of Covid-19. We also get to hear about what brought him to the practice of law.
A transcript of this podcast is available at:
Ernie Castillo 510-894-6626
Louis Goodman 510-582-9090
Musical theme by Joel Katz, Seaside Recording, Maui
Technical Support: Bryan Matheson, Skyline Studio, Oakland
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Attorney at Law
Ernie Castillo - Podcast Transcript
Louis Goodman: Hello, and welcome to Love Thy Lawyer. Where we talk to real lawyers about their lives in and out of the practice of law, how they got to be lawyers and what their experience has been. I'm Louis Goodman, the host of the show, and yes, I'm a lawyer. Nobody's perfect today. We're very happy to have Ernie Castillo with us.
He's a lawyer practicing in Alameda County for quite some time and handled serious cases. Welcome to Love Thy Lawyer.
Ernie Castillo: Thank you, Lou. It's an honor to be here with you on this podcast. It's my first podcast and I'm happy to be here.
Louis Goodman: Well, I'm very honored to have you on the program. especially considering some of the cases that, you've handled.
We'll talk about that a little bit later. First of all, let's just start here. Where is your office located?
Ernie Castillo: I have an office in Oakland, on Washington Street down by Jack London. It's a small little office, I rent some space there. I've been out in Oakland practicing for about, I don't know, 18 years now.
Louis Goodman: And what kind of practice do you have?
Ernie Castillo: I do criminal defense only. Most of my practice consists of homicide cases out here in this County. I have some other types of criminal cases, that I'm dealing with currently, but for the most part, it's mostly murder cases.
Louis Goodman: Where are you from originally?
Ernie Castillo: I grew up in San Francisco. I was born in the city, went to high school out there and went to college, went to law school. I moved out to Oakland, I think in 2009, 2008. I'm a city kid.
Louis Goodman: I understand your parents were immigrants from El Salvador.
Ernie Castillo: Yeah. I have an interesting background. Both of my parents, met in America, but they were, originally from El Salvador.
My mother comes from sort of a middle-class family out there. My father was a working-class guy. He grew up primarily with his mother. His father though was, my grandfather was the president of El Salvador in between 1961 and 1962. He formed a coup that took the country over.
So yeah, that's an interesting background. My parents came here separately and they met here in America.
Louis Goodman: So this fighting spirit is well within your DNA.
Ernie Castillo: It is definitely deep rooted in, right. In my DNA. Absolutely.
Louis Goodman: Did you go to high school in San Francisco?
Ernie Castillo: I did. I went to Reardon high school. It's a Catholic school. I grew up in San Francisco. I think it's called Archbishop Reardon now. I think they just went coed. It was the last high school in San Francisco to be all boys until this year, this school year will, they'll be opening up to girls as well.
Louis Goodman: What was your experience like when you went there?
Ernie Castillo: You know, Reardon seems like a long time ago. Mostly working-class school. So there are these three, you know, Catholic schools in the city that kind of all competed it's SSI, Sacred Heart and Reardon, and Reardon was definitely on the lower totem pole of the spectrum there between those three schools, mostly a working-class school, predominantly Latino, Asian, and African American.
It was kind of rough. It felt like a high school, to be honest with you, but it was definitely a good bonding experience amongst guys. It was like a locker room. interaction every day, sports was a big one. so you know, it was good. It's definitely a lot of life experiences that were learned there.
Louis Goodman: Did you play a sport there?
Ernie Castillo: I played a little bit of football, primarily baseball. I was a big baseball player, so I played baseball for years and then I was a catcher actually. So I loved calling the games. I loved being part of the strategy of the game. So we had a lot of fun.
Louis Goodman: And when you're a catcher, you're always in the game.
You're not standing around waiting for the ball to come to you.
Ernie Castillo: Right. Always in the game, always strategizing against batters, putting on calling the defense and all that. It was great. And it's a lot of fun.
Louis Goodman: Yeah. When you got out of high school, you went to San Francisco State, is that right?
Ernie Castillo: Yep. At San Francisco State, I kept it local.
Kept a working class and went to SF State, graduated in the social sciences with a minor in criminal justice. And, it was a great school. I had a good time there. I developed a very strong bond with the director of the criminal justice program there named John Curtin. And he kind of took me under his wing there.
Try to help me get out of the working-class background I had and tried to push me into law school and make me a professional. And so he took me under his wing, expose me to the law, got me into law school and the rest is history, I guess.
Louis Goodman: So is that when you first started thinking about becoming a lawyer?
Ernie Castillo: I did. That was the very first time. I was at SF state studying in the criminal justice program. One of the classes, there was focused on criminal law. We reviewed like cases, things like that Supreme Court cases. And that really sparked my interest and got me into thinking about going to law school, becoming a lawyer and yeah.
Trying to figure out kind of what I would do if I had become an attorney.
Louis Goodman: Where'd you go to law school?
Ernie Castillo: I kept local. I stayed at Golden Gate University here in San Francisco. and I loved it there. The professors were great. They were very good, very personal with students. They were very, available and I thought it was great.
It was a great time there.
Louis Goodman: It sounds like mentors have been very important to you in mapping out your career.
Ernie Castillo: Yeah, they have. I'd say it started with San Francisco State guiding me towards law school. Once I went through law school, you know, I think it was after my first or second year in law school, I hooked up with the San Francisco Public Defender's Office as an intern.
I had a trial attorney there who kind of took me under his wing and really exposed me to the work of a public defender and a criminal defense attorney. And one of the emphasis there at the San Francisco Public Defender's Office was trial work. Courtroom work. And so once I got there, the guy that I was working for, essentially just threw me into that courtroom, doing preliminary hearings, motions to suppress, 995 motions, whatever, you name it, just to get me in there.
I can get a feel for what that was like. For sure. And then when I was done with law school, I started in private practice right away in San Francisco. And I worked with a guy, I shared office space with a guy named Joe Sullivan, who is still practicing out there. And he was a big trial guy as well.
And so he had this culture of going to trial and everything. He handled big cases and I learned a tremendous amount about trial work. Being alongside Joe Sullivan. And from there, I just, everything about my connections in the field really centered around trial work. So when I got to Oakland, working out here, my mind was pretty set on doing trial work.
Louis Goodman: I want to come back to that just a minute, but first I'd like to ask you, what did your friends and family say or think when you express to them an interest in going to law school becoming a lawyer?
Ernie Castillo: My friends growing up were guys who, just, you know, they do a lot of different types of work.
They're police officers, they're firemen, they're delivery guys that do a lot of different working-class jobs. And only a couple of us ended up doing legal work. So when I took the route of trying to become an attorney, I think it was a shock and a surprise to most of my friends and people who knew me. But it was something that I felt like if I can make it into the legal community, I felt like I could go back and work in the sort of environment that I grew up in and try to do some work for people in that scene. So it was definitely a big surprise for not only my friends, but especially, yeah, my parents, who had no real expectations for me to ever become a professional.
Not that they didn't want me to, but it was just, wasn't really in the works. But it just kind of worked out that way. There was a lot of ambition behind it and a lot of dedication.
Louis Goodman: As a matter of fact, your brother's a San Francisco police officer.
Ernie Castillo: Yeah, he is. He's a police officer in San Francisco.
We actually talk every day and we give each other a hard time every day. So we have a good time.
Louis Goodman: Oh, that's great. So speaking of trial work, you know, you really have a reputation in Alameda County as someone who tries tough cases. Goes to trial. Is prepared for trial and has had a lot of success at trial.
Tell me a little bit about your notion of the work that you do.
Ernie Castillo: Yeah, so, you know, I think it starts with why I'm a defense attorney, really, you know, the way I see things from my perspective, my background, I really enjoy helping the underdog. I feel like people in the criminal justice system have gone through a difficult time trying to survive. They are definitely going through a system that has been considered by a lot of people, especially during these times as an oppressive biased system. and I think they are underdogs in a lot of different ways economically, especially, and I think those guys need the most help. And those are the people that, honestly, Lou, I have a connection to just because I feel like I'm connected to those are the types of people that I grew up with. You know, these working-class guys, having a hard time, making mistakes, getting caught up in the system. I grew up around that. So I definitely have a passion for representing people in that situation for representing the underdog. I had this big dedication to that. At least that's how I see myself and that's what motivates me. And so when I stepped into this criminal defense arena, I think the maximum were the most impactful or influential thing I can do as an attorney is to do trial work at the most extreme. In the most extreme way possible, which is going to trial on murder cases, sex cases, things like that.
I see people charged with murder and sex cases as the most, outcasted group amongst defendants. They are the people that need the most help. They are the people that are hated the most by society, and I think they need the most help. So I, I enjoy representing that underdog. In that scenario, in that boxing ring.
And so, you know, that's how I ended up doing trial work and doing murder cases and sex cases.
Louis Goodman: For sure. As a matter of fact, you said to me when we talked about doing this podcast, just before we actually started recording that you have a jury out right now on a murder case, and that we might need to interrupt this conversation if the court calls and says they need you back in court.
Ernie Castillo: Yeah, I do. It's a murder case in Oakland. It’s anyone's worst nightmare. It's a robbery at gunpoint and with a kidnap. brutal beating, and torture person was bound driven up to the Hills in Oakland and assassinated up there, shot in the head three times. There are some interesting issues in the case.
We started the trial back in, I want to say February or January of this year, we were in actual evidence in the case in March. We were scheduled to do closing arguments, March 17, and then the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the shelter in place orders went into effect the courtrooms shut down. And we had a pause since March 17, all the way up to, I guess we went back June 23rd, a couple of days ago. So there'd been a delay of over a hundred days, just waiting for us to do a closing argument on this thing. So, it's been a hell of a roller coaster dealing with that.
Louis Goodman: You know, most of us have a notion of what a courtroom looks like.
I mean, I certainly do as an attorney. I think, you know, everybody sort of thinks of it as there's a judge sitting on a bench, there's a jury sitting on one side of the courtroom there's counsel tables. What does the courtroom look like in a jury trial with the coronavirus situation going on?
Ernie Castillo: Well, it's the way it looks now, it had a long road to get to where it is today, where, how we did our closing arguments this week, when the pandemic struck, everything was on pause. Everyone was trying to figure things out. Eventually there was a push by the Alameda County system to have us finish this trial on some type of remote platform.
Basically stripping us from having to show up into a courtroom physically and finishing this thing up. It was proposed to us to try to have the jury even deliberate remotely amongst themselves. and I, you know, we fought, I fought tooth and nail against that. I was not going to agree to that at all.
The County put plexiglass around the witness box. They created a plexiglass box that surrounds a podium for us to stand in and do our closing arguments. So it was a very unusual experience. As soon as you walk into the courthouse, there's stuff everywhere. Marking how far to stay away from people.
When you get into the hallways, there's markings everywhere, telling you how far to stay away. And when you enter our courtroom, there were signs all over the seats about where not to sit, where to sit and all that it was, it's a complete nightmare. It felt like you were walking into a danger zone.
Louis Goodman: Curiosity, who's the judge and the DA that you're working with in this case?
Ernie Castillo: Judge McCannon and the DA Stacie Pedigrew.
Louis Goodman: Do you have some sense of how they're going to handle deliberations?
Ernie Castillo: So, they're in deliberations right now. The judge decided to give them the courtroom that we did our closing arguments in. So the judge will be out of that completely. He won't use the chambers in that courtroom. The clerk and court reporter will be gone.
The sheriffs or the deputy in the courtroom will be sitting outside the door to the courtroom. And they're going to give the courtroom to the jury to use for deliberations.
Louis Goodman: Interesting. You've tried a lot of cases. Do you have some sense of how many, Well, let's start her, how many serious cases you've tried?
Ernie Castillo: Gosh, I don't even know. It's a total guess, but I would say just murder cases alone, probably about 20 or 25. Well, and then, you know, I've tried sex cases and everything else in between all the way down to misdemeanor. So I don't know, I'd say maybe 35, 40 cases, total maybe is my guess.
Louis Goodman: Now you're also bilingual, aren't you?
Ernie Castillo: Yes. I speak Spanish.
Louis Goodman: Well, I had a case that was a very serious case that my client left me and hired you, and in large part because you speak Spanish and they felt very comfortable talking to you. I was frankly happy that they did take you on as their attorney, because I think that they did feel comfortable and the client felt comfortable talking to you.
And very frankly, I'll let you know, in that case, it was a murder case and you got him a very good manslaughter disposition.
Ernie Castillo: Yeah. I think we ended up resolving it for four years, midterm on a manslaughter and, yeah, I think the client was very happy about that. Some of that incident was actually on video and photos.
Louis Goodman: Right.
Ernie Castillo: Sure. Was. Yeah, I was, I was really very happy about the way the whole thing turned out and thank you. Yeah.
Louis Goodman: If a young person was thinking about a career in law, would you recommend that they do that?
Ernie Castillo: You know? I don't know. Well, I should say my career and what I do, it's not as glamorous as you might imagine going into it. You know, it's a.
Louis Goodman: I know that
Ernie Castillo: it's not like a movie that you're watching about lawyers. So it's definitely a grind.
Louis Goodman: it's hard work.
Ernie Castillo: It is hard work. and sometimes, especially in criminal defense world, people, especially with the kind of cases I do deal with, you know, sometimes people hate you for representing a murderer or somebody who killed the child and things like that.
So you got to have some thick skin. To do this, you know, I would definitely recommend it if they got that skin for it.
Louis Goodman: Well, how has practicing law met or differed from your original expectations?
Ernie Castillo: To be honest with you, Lou, I don't really think I had any expectations going into this. I didn't really know much about going to law school or any of that stuff.
Louis Goodman: Do you think the system is fair? Do you think it dispenses justice?
Ernie Castillo: The system has definitely, evolved into a system that reflects, I would say more than anything, a class bias and all certainly racial concerns. And I think that, that is definitely something as a trial attorney I have to be conscious of when I walk into a courtroom and I'm trying to pick a jury, I need to understand what my client looks like to society, what people are thinking about him and how members of society are going to look at this particular case. So I can't be, I can't bury my head in the sand about issues like that. When I'm thinking about a case.
Louis Goodman: Are you seeing any more diversity in the jurors?
Ernie Castillo:. I do see a lot more diversity in the jurors.
Louis Goodman: I'm not just talking. I'm not just talking about racial diversity, but kind of diversity in thinking.
Ernie Castillo: I think so, you know, my concern, Lou, on these kinds of cases that I see a lot is you can get a very socially conscious juror show up to a case, and will scream out and say, Hey, you know what, I think the system has problems. I think people are biased in the system. I don't like cops, whatever it is. And they say that, and then they get themselves off of a jury panel.
Louis Goodman: How about your family situation, your family life. And, and how is practicing law affected all of that?
Ernie Castillo: Well, you know, I'm lucky my wife, we used to all work together.
At the place I used to work at before I went into my own private practice a few years ago.
Louis Goodman: She is an attorney as well?
Ernie Castillo: No, she's not. She was like a legal assistant there. So she knows the ins and outs of the criminal defense business, and sort of what needs to be done. And so she helps me out. She's kind of my right hand
Louis Goodman: Do you have kids?
Ernie Castillo: I do. I have two kids, they're nine and seven.
Louis Goodman: That's great.
Ernie Castillo: And it’s a fun age. So I try not to miss, you know, their activities and things like that despite being in trial all the time and trial takes a lot of time and a lot of work and effort.
Louis Goodman: What other things do you like to do?
Any travel, recreational pursuits?
Ernie Castillo: You know, if I wasn't an attorney, Lou, I'd be a musician.
Louis Goodman: Really.
Ernie Castillo: I love playing guitar.
Louis Goodman: Let's say magic wand. You could change one thing in the world, legal or otherwise. What would that be?
Ernie Castillo: I think I would change economic inequity. I think that has a lot to do with the root cause of a lot of the social problems that we see in our world and in our life. So I would say economic inequity.
Louis Goodman: let's say you came into some real money, a couple of billion dollars somehow. What, if anything, would you do differently in your life?
Ernie Castillo: In my life? Well, first of all, I’d probably quit practicing law for sure. I would definitely try to use that money to fund grassroots organizations who are out there working with the people who need the most help.
Louis Goodman: So you'd be a philanthropist?
Ernie Castillo: I guess you can come say that.
Louis Goodman:. It's been a real pleasure to talk to you today. Thanks so much for coming on the pod.
I've really enjoyed our conversation. I think I've learned a few things and thanks so much for being here.
Ernie Castillo: Thanks for having me.