Lara Montecalvo, appointed to be public defender in Rhode Island, after her predecessor was appointed to the bench, looks likely to follow suit.
The 48-year-old Montecalvo received a B.A. from Swarthmore College in 1996 and her J.D. from Boston College Law School in 2000. After graduating, Montecalvo spent four years in the Tax Division of the United States Department of Justice before joining the Rhode Island Public Defender’s Office. Montecalvo joined the Office’s Appellate Division, and was appointed its head in 2014, and the official Public Defender in 2020.
History of the Seat
Montecalvo has been nominated for a vacancy on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. This seat opened when Judge Ojetta Rogeriee Thompson announced her desire to take senior status upon the confirmation of a successor.
While Montecalvo started her legal career at the Department of Justice where she worked primarily in bankrupctcy, see, e.g., In re. Claxton, 335 B.R. 680 (Bankr. N.D. Ill. 2002), she has spent the past 18 years at the Rhode Island Public Defender’s Office, where she has represented indigent defendants. Montecalvo started her time at the office as a trial attorney, representing Rachin McCoy, who was sentenced to life in prison for the death of his baby daughter, after he beat her under the influence of marijuana. See Mark Reynolds, Man Gets Life in Daughter’s Death, Providence Journal, Oct. 20, 2011.
Since 2010, Montecalvo has primarily handled appeals, including serving as Chief of the Appellate Division from 2014 to 2020, when Governor Gina Raimondo appointed Montecalvo to be Rhode Island’s Public Defender, replacing Mary McElroy, who was appointed to the federal bench. Donita Taylor, Masked R.I. Senate Panel Confirms Nominee for Public Defender, Providence Journal, May 28, 2020. Among the appeals, she has handled:
- The Supreme Court overturned a conviction for Possession with Intent to Distribute based on a prosecutor cross-examining the Defendant based on false information about his criminal history. See State v. Price, 68 A.3d 440 (R.I. 2013). See also Tracy Breton, Drug Conviction Flawed, State’s High Court Rules, Providence Journal, June 24, 2013.
- The Supreme Court overturned a murder conviction where the defendant had been improperly barred from cross-examining a detective who had interviewed him. State v. Arciliares, 108 A.3d 1040 (R.I. 2015).
- The Supreme Court overturned a murder conviction, finding that evidence obtained through a warrantless search of the man’s home should have been suppressed. See State v. Gonzalez, 136 A.3d 1131 (R.I. 2016). See also Katie Mulvaney, Man’s Conviction in 2012 Warwick Murder Overturned in Court Ruling; State Supreme Court Says Search of Home, Arrest Were Both Faulty, Providence Journal, Mar. 30, 2016.
- The Supreme Court upheld a conviction for sexual assault, finding that the defendant had validly waived his Miranda rights. State v. Sabourin, 161 A.3d 1132 (R.I. 2017).
- The Supreme Court upheld a conviction for second degree murder, finding that the prosecutor’s reference to the defendant as a “scam artist” and a “career thief” were not improper given the defendant’s criminal history. State v. Lastarza, 203 A.3d 1159 (R.I. 2019).
- The Supreme Court overturned a conviction after a prosecutor improperly claimed in closing arguments that the defendant “stared down” the victim in court. State v. Bozzo, 223 A.3d 755 (R.I. 2020). Barry Bridges, New Trial Required Due to Extraneous Closing Comments, Opinion Digest, Jan. 23, 2020.
Additionally, as Public Defender, Montecalvo has continued a partnership between her office and the Lifespan Transitions Clinic, which has worked since 2018 to help provide healthcare for individuals transitioning from prison into the community. Katie Mulvaney, Breaking the Cycle: First-of-its-Kind Partnership Aims to Help Repeat Offenders By Bringing Medical Perspective to Criminal Trials, Providence Journal, May 30, 2021.
In 2016, Montecalvo coauthored a paper with two other appellate attorneys in Rhode Island discussing the Rhode Island probation system. See Lara Montecalvo, Kara Maguire, and Angela Yingling, No Exit, No End: Probation in Rhode Island, 21 Roger Williams U. L. Rev. 316 (Spring 2016). The article discusses the challenges in the probation system in Rhode Island and recommends a number of legal and policy changes. Id. at 318. Among the changes it recommends, the article suggests that the burden of proof in probation hearings be raised from the “reasonable satisfaction” standard to “beyond a reasonable doubt” or “preponderance of the evidence.” Id. at 340-41. The article also recommends capping terms of probation. Id. at 351.
Biden’s judicial nominees have been particularly notable for their large proportion of public defenders, and Montecalvo joins that trend. Montecalvo’s record shows a strong understanding of Rhode Island criminal law, and, suggests little that would threaten a smooth Senate confirmation.