Lawyer says firebombing not a hate crime

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Victor Quintin Podbreger, 19, has been charged with enough counts in the firebombing of a Santa Clara County Superior Court judge's home to land him in state prison for longer than he has been alive.

He entered a plea of not guilty on Wednesday.

Podbreger and two 17-year-old companions stand accused of lobbing a Molotov cocktail at the San Jose home of Presiding Judge Jack Komar and his wife, whom they reportedly thought were Jewish, shortly after midnight Aug. 29.

The Komars are Roman Catholic.

The firebomb fizzled, however, and did only minimal damage to an exterior wall of the home in the Willow Glen neighborhood. But police, the district attorney and a Jewish community whose nerves were already raw from a spate of hate crimes took the matter seriously.

Podbreger's arraignment had been continued twice while the county scrambled to find a lawyer to represent him. First the Santa Clara public defender, then the Santa Clara alternate defender, declared a conflict of interest in the case.

"He's a young kid," said Allen Schwartz, a lawyer appointed by the Legal Aid Society to represent the San Jose resident. "He's scared. He absolutely denies this was ever meant to be a hate crime."

Podbreger has been charged with possession and manufacture of an incendiary device, and one count each of terrorism, attempted arson and vandalism, with hate-crime enhancements on both the latter counts.

The two juveniles have been charged with one count of vandalism, boosted with a hate-crime enhancement, and conspiracy to commit arson. Under state law, a crime motivated by bias carries additional penalties.

Why would a Jewish lawyer want to represent a skinhead?

"Because I think this case has been blown way out of proportion," Schwartz said. "This kid's been lynched in the media. This was not a hate crime. The police concluded it must have been after they searched his apartment and found some items."

Those items included skinhead paraphernalia, literature and guns. But the search and subsequent leaks raise free-speech issues, which is partly what compels Schwartz despite his own turbulent feelings about representing a man who is unabashed about his white supremacist, anti-Semitic views.

"This is really complicated stuff," he said. "I'm Jewish. I've been doing a lot of soul-searching."

But, "I think he's entitled to a fair trial, and he has not been treated fairly. There have been a lot of leaks from the police."

The aborted firebombing came on the heels of a shooting spree at the North Valley Jewish Community Center near Los Angeles and arson attacks on three Sacramento-area synagogues.

With hate crimes on the minds of many in the Jewish community, perhaps undue importance was attached to the firebombing attempt, the defendants' attorneys suggested.

Moreover, the first attorney appointed to defend Podbreger said the three suspects did not even know that Komar was a judge.

"That was pure chance," said Francis Cavagnaro, an attorney with the Santa Clara Public Defender's office who continues to represent one of the underage youths.

"Everybody may not be guilty," Cavagnaro said. "By no means is that a certainty. I think what we have here is a case of alcohol, youth and stupidity."

Santa Clara Assistant District Attorney Karen Sinunu said, "It's more like young, drunk, stupid, biased and violent."

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.