Greeley public defender feels kinship with clients
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GREELEY, Colo. (AP) — You might think Vincente Vigil would be the opposite of many of his clients.
He works as an attorney in the Colorado State Public Defender's Office in Greeley. He got a law degree from the University of Colorado. He worked hard for most of his life and was raised in a small town, La Salle, by supportive parents and four siblings.
Sounds like he could run for office, right?
But Vigil doesn't see it that way. He believes he was only one or two missteps away from trading in his suit for orange prison scrubs. And if you take a closer look at his background, you might see why.
Vigil dropped out of high school. He was unmotivated and a little disjointed: At one point, he wanted to be a pool hustler. He had a colorful background, to be sure, working with dozens of cousins and for his uncle Cecil at The Farmer's Inn and also for his father, Eddie, in the summer as a contractor for the carnivals: His father owned the games of chance booths, and Vigil usually guessed people's weights (he was pretty good at it, too). Even those supportive parents believed in their kids setting their own path, Vigil said, and sometimes that can be good, and other times, well, that can be bad.
Vigil, 33, even points to his ethnicity as something that could have led him down the wrong path. He calls himself a Mexican male, and though that's a source of pride for him, he remembers going to the store on an errand for his mother. He was 6 or 7 at the time and wanted to buy some milk. It was the first time he was ever called a "wetback," an insult delivered from the boy behind the store counter. A young "Mexican male" with a rural background had a tougher life than a white boy whose father owned the town grocery store, he said.
"All these guys I defend, they aren't much different than me," Vigil said. "I recently defended one guy, and he had the exact same background as me. I got lucky."
Perhaps it was because of that ethnicity, but Vigil felt out of place in CU's law school. Then again, he said, maybe the Latino label was more self-imposed, even if there weren't many like him in school. Regardless, he remembers sitting in class during his first semester and believing he made a huge mistake.
He wanted to be a poet, but after getting a degree in English at Colorado State University, he realized poetry wasn't going to pay off his student loans. He got a nice scholarship from CU to attend law school, but even today, he's not sure why he decided to be an attorney.
"It was a real random decision, to be honest," Vigil said.
But Vigil began changing his mind after he entered a trial competition at school on the urging of a friend. All those years of working in a carnival, goading people into letting him guess their weight, taught him how to speak in public: Even today, going to trial is his favorite part of his job.
"I really liked standing in front of people and telling them a story," Vigil said.
Vigil's mother was in a jury pool, and she was not selected, but she came away impressed with the public defenders who worked the case. She told Vigil they seemed nice. Vigil checked it out and immediately agreed with her. He calls some of the attorneys who work there his heroes. It felt good to work there, he said. It felt right. It was the first time he felt as if he could work as a lawyer.
He applied to work there in a limited capacity as a law student in 2006. A secretary who was a waitress in the same pastry shop where Vigil once worked put in a good word for him, saying that the office would surely be full of the most delicious pastries she'd ever had. Vigil, apparently, was quite a cook. He worked there as a student, then again as an intern, and he was hired in 2008 as a full-time attorney. Today, his co-workers still want to know why he hasn't brought them pastries.
The public defender's office isn't glamorous. You don't make as much money as those guys with billboards calling themselves names such as Strong Arm. But Vigil wants to work there, he said, until they fire him (or he retires, whichever comes first).
"I feel good about helping people," he said. "There are a lot of people against them. The cops are against them, the D.A. is against them, and I feel good about being one of the few on their side."
He treats his clients with the same kind of respect he would have hoped for had he been the one who slipped, made a couple bad choices and walked through the doors of his office as a guy who needed help, rather than the one who regularly gets them a second chance.