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Public defender fights for topless sunbathers

Says Calif. women need equal rights

VENTURA, Calif. -- Liana Johnsson does not mean to cause trouble. But she is not the kind to tolerate injustice.

So the veteran Ventura County public defender fights hard for her indigent clients, railing against a system that jails the homeless for being drunk in public or for snatching shopping carts to haul around their belongings. She is famous for efforts to help addicts find their way into treatment programs and straighten out their lives.

In 11 years with the public defender's office, she has become known as a passionate advocate for the poor and underserved, a patron saint of long shots and lost causes.

Her latest crusade has reached the Capitol in Sacramento as she leads a campaign to allow women to go topless at California parks and beaches, seeking to end what she calls the last criminal sanction that treats women differently from men.

"I'm not a troublemaker. It's just sometimes I know I'm right," said Johnsson, 42, who would not say whether she wants to go topless herself but insists she should have the right.

"I have a desire to be equal to men," she said. "The Constitution tells me that everybody is created equal. Unfortunately, I read that part."

Born and raised in northern California, she was meant to practice law.

Her mother was a longtime legal services lawyer, and her father is a lawyer who teaches in Napa Valley and thinks his daughter should be spending her time trying to abolish the death penalty.

The Ventura resident received her undergraduate degree in psychology from Haverford College in Pennsylvania, which was founded by Quakers. She is not a Quaker but embraces the group's teachings. She said she decided to go there largely because college officials initially said she was not qualified to attend.

"I don't like being told that I can't do something," said Johnsson, who earned her law degree in 1990 from the University of California at Berkeley.

"The more you step on me, the harder I fight."

Friends and colleagues can attest to that. She works daily in the bowels of the Ventura County Jail, handling the arraignment calendar for waves of poor defendants. If bail is excessive, she will jump up and say so. If a suspect has been roughed up by police, she makes sure that the judge knows it.

"She's a tiger," longtime Ventura activist Alice McGrath said. "If you were in trouble, you'd want Liana on your side."

To drive home her point, Johnsson produced a short video showing overweight men lounging on California beaches, their ample breasts apparent for all to see. And she sounded alarms when noting that because of a recent court ruling, women convicted of indecent exposure could find themselves listed as sex offenders under Megan's Law, alongside rapists and child molesters.

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