by Peggy Montaño
Editor’s note: Peggy Montaño is the widow of Larry Manzanares. Montaño’s niece, Tess Montaño, assisted in the preparation of the article.
Boxes left in Larry’s office pay tribute to his organizational skills — eclectic at best, non-existent at worst, but generally not understandable to anyone else. One contained a recipe for cheese enchilada casserole, a screwdriver, transcripts from a murder case, a roster of judges’ phone numbers from 2002, an electrical diagram for a motorcycle tail light, a book of 500 Spanish verbs and a sweatshirt. This was typical Larry-think — so much going on at the same time and going full-steam ahead on all of it. He loved doing so much and he loved the people in his overly full life.
Larry spent four years as a county court judge and nine years presiding over district court. He always had high praise and respect for the well-prepared and professional lawyers who appeared in his court. He was less kind to others ("This is a case of the unethical versus the incompetent," he noted after a particularly unimpressive session). He believed that one’s reputation as a lawyer — with skill or without — was earned. He loved the nuances of all the cases before him, from restraining orders — one of which developed into a brawl during the hearing — to murder trials.
He held public defenders in particularly high regard because of the difficult and usually thankless work they do. Criminal defendants who claimed incompetent counsel in appeals after representation by public defenders — blaming the one person in the court who firmly had been in their corner — particularly dismayed him.
Larry believed in hands-on continuing education in the legal field. The National Institute for Trial Advocacy was his favorite legal education organization, and he looked forward to the weeks when he would teach there. He believed that giving lawyers enhanced education and a chance to practice their trial skills in a classroom setting would improve the legal profession and ultimately improve the justice system.
Whether he knew it or not, being a judge became an integral part of Larry’s persona.
He walked and talked the law. A host of lawyers, many of them young lawyers, wrote to me after his death to share stories about the help Larry had given them when they were starting their careers. He showed them how to admit evidence properly, and guided them through procedure. They all said that he had gone out of his way to ensure that trials would include every aspect pertinent to producing the fairest result — not limited by their inexperience, nervousness or knowledge at that time. One young woman related that he told her to give her opening statement from where she sat because he could see that the fear she had at the podium overshadowed what she had to say.
Cases were on his mind much of the time; he seemed to mull over decisions while gardening, fixing motorcycles or bicycling. One murder trial had weighed especially heavy — three minors were being charged as adults in the murder of a woman killed in a robbery. The youngest, 14, had not participated in the murder but was present when it occurred. Mandatory sentencing laws and the felony murder statute ensured that the young offender would be in prison well past middle age. Larry lamented this tragedy; the loss of two precious lives; one to death, the other to years hopelessly spent in prison — with the chance for rehabilitation more of a myth than a reality. Declaring juveniles adults and trying them as such doesn’t make them adults, Larry said.
Larry, ever the judge, always was looking for ways to improve the judicial system. Family, friends and associates will remember him as a tireless advocate for education as a solution to many of society’s problems. He gave much of his time and energy to serve community organizations; nevertheless, he reserved his greatest efforts for his family and friends. He will be sorely missed.