It started with a death penalty case in Glenn County.
Colusa County District Attorney John Poyner was in private practice in the City of Orland, working alongside Peter Twede (now a Glenn County Judge), with whom he went to law school.
Poyner was doing criminal defense and personal injury work, and was appointed by the court to defend a man in a capital murder case.
“It was a really sad case,” Poyner said. “I was down in Oakland for a little over four months, trying that case.”
It wasn’t where Poyner wanted to be, physically, or career-wise: He had never wanted to be a defense attorney. He had intended to join the Federal Bureau of Investigations, but his hopes were dashed when he learned he was colorblind, a no-go in the Bureau.
“I wasn’t into the Secret Service, and by this time, I had a law degree,” Poyner explained. “So, what are you going to do? Practice criminal law.”
While he was trying the case in Oakland, Poyner realized he wanted to be on the other side.
“As it ended up, they didn’t end up giving my guy the death penalty. He was convicted, as he should have been, because he was guilty. But they didn’t give him the death penalty, and I think that a better prosecutor would have gotten it,” Poyner said. “And so, I became obsessed with becoming a prosecutor.”
From there, Poyner applied to do just that in Trinity and Colusa counties. He interviewed for both just days apart, and told his wife at the time that the first to call would get his services. As it turned out, Colusa called 10 minutes before Trinity. It turned out to be a good fit for Poyner.
“I was born in Iowa: I’m a country boy. I was not going to work in the city. The minute I realized I was going to have to practice law and not be an FBI agent, I knew I was going to be in the country,” Poyner said. “I always figured you could be a big fish in a small pond, rather than a small fish in a big pond. Over my career, I have dealt with hundreds of big city lawyers. And you know what? The local attorneys around here are far better than the big city lawyers.”
The rest, as they say, is history.
The man that hired Poyner resigned in 1984, a little over a year after Poyner started in Colusa. He took over as the county’s acting District Attorney, until he was elected in 1986. That was the only year he ran opposed. Thirty two years later, Poyner is hanging it up, ending his run as the longest tenured district attorney in the state.
“It has been a long time,” Poyner said. “I’ve always had really good support, county-wide. The people have always been good.”
An iron hand, with a glove
The atmosphere established by Poyner at the Colusa County District Attorney’s office has been one of balance, between compassion and a willingness to bring charges other DAs might not.
“I have always taken an aggressive stance. I have certainly filed cases that other DAs wouldn’t file, and I’ve got convictions behind them. My philosophy is pretty straightforward: If the facts are there, and the law is on our side, I’m going to file it and let the chips fall where they may,” Poyner said. “I sit as the executive branch of government (on the county level), and knowing that, I knew I had an iron hand. But I always wore a glove. Always. Now, there were a couple of times that I took that glove off, and when I did, they deserved it. But generally, I kept the glove on.”
Poyner said that over his career, his office has taken an aggressive stance on charging cases, and has made deals that were good for the county, not just himself.
“Aside from myself, I have always have had attorneys who are willing to try cases. I can’t stand a prosecutor who makes a deal that is just ridiculous… I’ve never gotten upset with any attorney who lost a case. I have lost cases. But I will get real upset if you’re afraid to go to trial,” Poyner said. “…That’s what the taxpayers are paying me for.”
Poyner pointed to two cases that stick out to him from his long career as a DA: One agricultural case against Wells Fargo and a lawsuit that effected how the textile industry operated globally.
“It hasn’t always been, you know, robbers and rapists and murderers and molesters. It’s been diverse,” Poyner said.
Poyner filed criminal charges on Wells Fargo Bank for wrongfully seizing a farmer’s product on a lien against a processing company. The farmer had the first right to the product after the company went bankrupt, according to the ag code, and never waived that right to the bank. Essentially played a part in Wells Fargo changing their policy on ag loans as a result.
The other case, which came about after a Colusa County resident reported bathroom rugs were being misleadingly labeled, changed the way the textile industry labels its products.
“Those were different cases,” Poyner said.
Plans for the future
“It’s been fun,” Poyner said of his 32-year tenure. “There’s a lot of me that regrets (retiring), but I’ve come to the conclusion that big cases are for young guys and gals…I’m going to miss it. I will not miss the 1 AM phone calls from the Sheriff’s Office, though.”
While he won’t be the one getting those phone calls for much longer, Poyner said that there are a number of outstanding cases that he plans to stick around for. He will retain his license for at least three and plans to continue to help the Colusa County DA’s office on those cases going forward.
“There’s some cases still pending where it’s easier for me to come back than to have my office start from square one,” Poyner said.
Those pending cases include a number of murder cases and one death sentence case, Poyner said.
“There’s some firms that want me to help them on some civil cases, but I’m not going to do that for that long,” Poyner said. “I have seven grandkids that I want to spend more time with. And I’d really like to get my handicap down. I’ve got my dogs. I love my dogs, raising my dogs, going to shows and hunting trials. I love that. I know the adage: If you don’t keep busy, you’re going to die soon. And I’m going to keep busy… I might do some teaching. I have been offered to do some teaching, but I don’t want to make any firm commitments. I just want an opportunity to take a breath.”
Poyner recently put an offer in on a house in Reno, and said he was undecided on whether he would sell his house in Colusa.
“We looked all over for a place to retire, and decided we wanted a place with an international airport with good medical, good veterinary, good food and entertainment, and Nevada’s got that. And it’s still close enough to the grandkids.” ■