For more than 30 years Santha Sonenberg was a public defender representing indigent clients in the local and federal courts in the District of Columbia at the trial and appellate levels, handling serious felonies, many of them homicides. A graduate of Wesleyan University and Georgetown University Law Center, she began working as a staff attorney at the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia (“PDS”) in October, 1983, spent most of the 1990’s as an Assistant Federal Public Defender in the Office of the Federal Public Defender for the District of Columbia, and returned to the Public Defender Service in 1998. At the Public Defender Service she was one of two attorneys who devised PDS’ Juvenile Unit and for several years she was Chief of the Trial Division, overseeing and supervising fifty lawyers. Fluent in Spanish, Ms. Sonenberg has represented many Spanish-speaking clients throughout her career. She also has extensive experience with mental health issues and has litigated many contested competency issues, often for years. She is on the Board of The Sentencing Project, a national organization that focusses on reform in the criminal legal system.
Additionally, Ms. Sonenberg has been involved in various impact litigation cases in the local and federal courts, including a class-action challenging the conditions of confinement in the District of Columbia’s juvenile correctional institutions, a challenge to the underrepresentation of Hispanics in the jury pool in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, and a challenge to the Metropolitan Police Department’s interdiction efforts at the train station and bus depot in the District of Columbia alleging racial discrimination in the individuals the police elected to stop. In addition, she has done extensive research on the issue of the non-discretionary and judicially unreviewable prosecution of juveniles as adults by “direct-filing” adult charges against them without an opportunity for a “reverse waiver” or “reverse transfer” hearing before a judicial officer. She developed significant pleadings and litigated that issue in both the local and federal courts in the District of Columbia.
In 2015 as part of President Obama’s 2014 Clemency Initiative, Ms. Sonenberg was an Attorney Advisor in the Office of the Pardon Attorney at the United States Department of Justice. From 2016 through 2018, she was the Chief of the Juvenile Section at the Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia under D.C.’s first elected Attorney General, Karl Racine. Embracing her belief in the importance of sentencing, often neglected by criminal defense attorneys, in 2018 Santha started working as a mitigation specialist and has been appointed to a number of federal capital cases throughout the United States as well as to some non-capital federal and state cases. Since 2021 Ms. Sonenberg also has been appointed as counsel of record for indigent clients in several federal criminal cases in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. Separately, in a number of other federal criminal cases (including January 6 cases) federal judges have asked her to provide advisory “reports and recommendations” on complex ethical issues.
At conferences and training sessions, including the United States Department of Justice’s 2010, Indigent Defense Symposium, Santha has presented on various topics, the majority of them relating to sentencing and to youth charged as adults, which are particular interests of hers. In July, 2019, she was an invited speaker on “Neuroscience and Criminal Law,” at the International Academy of Law and Mental Health in Rome, Italy. Finally, Santha has supervised numerous lawyers in adult jury trials, and in transfer proceedings in juvenile court. Her teaching experience includes training lawyers and law school students since the late 1980’s, including as a Visiting Associate Professor of Law at Georgetown University Law Center in the Prettyman Graduate Program and in Georgetown’s Criminal Justice Clinic in 2001 and as an Adjunct Professor of Law in Georgetown University Law Center’s Criminal Justice Clinic in 2019-2022.
- B.A. History Wesleyan University, 1979
- J.D. Georgetown University Law Center, 1983