Chad Firetag, left, Paul Grech, and Steve Harmon, right, high-profile defense attorneys in Riverside.(WILLIAM WILSON LEWIS III / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)

RICHARD K. De ATLEY
STAFF WRITER
rdeatley@pe.com

Published: 02 October 2011 06:41 PM

Chad W. Firetag, at age 34, has gained a standing as an Inland-area defense attorney that most lawyers don’t reach until later in their careers — a reputation for connecting to jurors in court and as a sought-after legal brief writer.

He is the chief financial officer for the Riverside County Bar Association and on the board of The Leo A. Deegan American Inn of Court, the local chapter of an organization that promotes professional conduct and best practices among lawyers.

In his most recent high-profile case, Firetag represents Mark Kirk, former chief of staff to San Bernardino County Supervisor Gary Ovitt, in a conspiracy and bribery in government corruption case.

After Firetag wrote a dismissal motion in Riverside County’s San Jacinto corruption case, scores of charges were thrown out, the case narrowed, and seven of the nine defendants eventually entered plea deals.

But for James Duncan Hawkins Jr., a 37-year-old Fontana man facing a third-strike conviction that could have sent him to prison for the rest of his life, all that mattered was that Firetag was his trial attorney in September.

Hawkins was charged with a late-night home burglary and assault in Murrieta after an initial arrest for evading police in his car. Firetag, Hawkins said, challenged every part of the case, including whether he was actually fleeing an officer.

Jurors in the Southwest Justice Center returned verdicts Sept. 14.

“I was really unsure,” Hawkins recalled. “I thought it might have been a hung jury. Then they were saying, ‘not guilty, not guilty, not guilty,’ and then, ‘guilty.’ I looked at Chad, and he grabbed my hand and smiled and said ‘Don’t worry, it’s a misdemeanor. ’ ” Hawkins said he could have kissed him.

Hawkins said in a phone interview that he had attempted suicide while the charges were pending, “But I didn’t do it the right way, thank God.” He said he planned to try again if he faced a three-strike sentence.

“Chad was literally fighting for my life, not a life sentence. I wasn’t going to do that amount of time,” Hawkins said.

Firetag’s courtroom style was free of histrionics or witness-hammering, Hawkins added. “He did not attack them, but he identified their flaws,” Hawkins said.

“I told him, ‘Chad, you are not wasting your time.’ I got my job back, I am attending church, and I am talking to my girlfriend about getting married.”

In an interview that took place before Hawkins’ trial, Firetag said: “If the prosecution is zealous and has high standards, then I think it’s just as right for the defense to have that as well.

“Without it, you have one side so much more powerful than the other, and you have no one arguing for you,” he said.

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