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The email set off alarm bells throughout the Los Angeles County public defender’s office.

In a message that reached roughly 1,200 lawyers and staff members, veteran public defender Ernesto Diaz pleaded for help with what he and some of his colleagues described as “unconscionable caseloads.” Felony attorneys were representing as many as 70 clients, more than double their normal workload, and some were so stressed out that they were becoming physically ill, he wrote.

“I have heard from countless dedicated public defenders that they do not want to do this job anymore,” Diaz wrote in the email. “This saddens me because, for many of them, this is the only job they ever wanted to do.”

Replies poured in from other public defenders echoing Diaz’s concerns, according to emails reviewed by The Times. Some said they were so overworked they could not provide effective counsel to their clients. Others expressed fear for their own safety, warning that the combination of high caseloads and what they consider lax court safety protocols during the pandemic could lead to more of their colleagues falling ill, after a deputy public defender died of COVID-19 in May.

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