Nima Momeni's attorney, Paula Canny, speaks with reporters. Photo by Eleni Balakrishnan

When she was in high school, Paula Canny did not fit the mold. It was the late ’60s, at an all-girls Catholic school, and she drank and did drugs. She also was vocal in her support for a woman’s right to abortion and birth control.

“It was a Catholic school. You weren’t supposed to talk like that then,” Canny says. 

Eventually, her behavior got her expelled. She considered accepting her fate, but ultimately some profuse apologies got her back into her prep school in Washington, D.C. 

“I’m the only person in the history of the school to be expelled from the school, and graduate from the school,” she says proudly. What’s more, at her 50-year reunion this weekend, she will actually receive a commendation for generosity. 

Just in case God is a Catholic, Canny says, she does what she can to help. 

That young troublemaker has since grown into a formidable criminal defense and civil rights attorney, who takes on high-profile legal cases in the Bay Area, and is now representing Nima Momeni, the man accused of stabbing Cash App founder and tech executive, Bob Lee, to death earlier this month in San Francisco. 

A woman leans against a courtroom table where a man in orange jumpsuit is seated
Paula Canny, representing accused killer Nima Momeni, surveys the courtroom in late April, 2023. Photo by Eleni Balakrishnan

Canny runs a private practice in Burlingame with her brother. Some of her past clients include Greg Anderson, the personal trainer who refused to testify against his trainee, San Francisco Giants all-star Barry Bonds; and Eliana Lopez Urbina, the wife of former San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi, accused of domestic violence. 

When we talk the day after she appeared in court with Momeni this week, Canny, 68, is already on the East Coast, where she is speaking out against the state’s failure to guarantee access to free menstrual products in jails, an expansion on the many civil suits she has filed to reform the criminal justice system. 

This work, which she began in California by suing every county in the state that didn’t offer inmates free tampons, she calls “my favorite thing I did as a lawyer.”

But early in her legal career, Canny played a very different role. In the ’80s, she worked as a “baby DA,” prosecuting cases in San Mateo and Ventura counties. 

“I quit, because I hated myself, because I felt like such a hypocrite,” she says. “I probably committed more felonies than I prosecuted,” she said referring to her history with drugs and alcohol.

Canny said she struggled for years with a substance-abuse problem that began when she was in grade school. It wasn’t until she suddenly found herself flush with cash from a case she had handled while at University of San Francisco law school in the early ‘80s that she decided to check into rehab. 

“It was just random,” Canny says. At age 31, she went to The Betty Ford Center, “the rehab everybody went to in the ’80s and the ’90s,” alongside stars like Tammy Wynette and Stevie Nicks. Despite the facility’s prestige, Canny says the process didn’t come easy; she considers it a lucky gift that she got sober. 

Having endured a tumultuous upbringing and faced the throes of addiction herself, Canny is keen to point out the importance of context for people accused of crimes. 

“In the course of my career, I think most people I represent who are charged with crimes are good,” Canny says. “They may have a flaw that’s a consequence, usually, of some trauma.” 

To that end, Canny this week referred to the “tribulations” Momeni’s family experienced in Iran, where his mother and sister were victims of sexual apartheid. At an impromptu press conference, she told reporters that her client’s “challenging” past had mentally prepared him to deal with his current position: In jail for murder. 

Like a dog on a bone

In this case, Canny has her work cut out for her. The San Francisco District Attorney’s Office alleged that surveillance camera footage shows Momeni leaving a party with Lee shortly before his death, and that he can be seen lunging at Lee before fleeing in his BMW. Investigators also purportedly found the murder weapon, a four-inch kitchen knife, at the scene. Prosecutors say the choice of a kitchen blade showed premeditation; it was not, they argued, a switchblade or pocket knife used in an emotional outburst. 

And yet, Canny insists that Momeni will plead “not guilty.” 

Fellow defense attorney Mark Geragos said that Canny has already made a compelling case against Momeni’s murder charge by introducing the idea that Momeni had “legitimate concern” for his sister. That, Geragos said, charts a path toward a manslaughter charge. 

According to the district attorney’s court filings, Lee had been with Momeni’s younger sister, Khazar Momeni, in the hours before his death. Momeni had allegedly questioned Lee about what the pair did together, and the two men left from Khazar Momeni’s ritzy apartment shortly before the stabbing. 

Geragos knows Canny from earlier cases. Together, they represented Greg Anderson, the personal trainer involved in the BALCO scandal around performance-enhancing drugs. 

“She is highly effective, and takes no prisoners, so to speak,” Geragos said. “And, in a case like this, she will not be intimidated by the hue and cry.” 

Another former colleague, retired San Mateo Superior Court Judge Marta Diaz, remembers Canny as a relentless, obsessive attorney, “like a dog on a bone.” (Canny refers to herself as a “defense dog.”) 

Both stood around five feet tall, and Diaz remembers that the two friends were often underestimated — in the early years. 

Canny expects those around her to strive for the same high standards she does, Diaz said: “If the i’s aren’t dotted and the t’s aren’t crossed, she’s going to notice it — and she’s going to mention it.” 

“She can be irritating, because she just keeps on pressing,” said San Mateo District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe, Canny’s long-ago colleague whose office often battles against her in court. 

But if it came to it, Wagstaffe said, he’d hire someone like Canny to defend his own family. 

Though she has taken on all sorts of criminal cases, murder is unusual for Canny. Over the years, she has defended only about 15 people, mostly men, charged with murder. Most have ended up negotiating plea bargains.  

Friends in high places

In 1994, Canny remembers meeting a client in San Quentin State Prison who was facing the death penalty for “felony murder” in a drug deal gone wrong. 

“He looks at me, and he’s like, ‘What’s a little white girl like you going to be able to do for me?’” Canny says. “And my response was, ‘Not a fuck of a lot, if that’s your fucking attitude.’” 

She ended up getting the death penalty dropped, and instead the defendant got a life sentence without parole. While the case’s outcome was the “saddest result” of her career, Canny says they’re still friends. 

Friends clearly come easy to Canny: She met Greg Anderson, the trainer she represented in the BALCO scandal, through an Olympian ex-girlfriend. The two remain friends, and train together today. 

The year she had breast cancer was the same year she represented Anderson, and she went to see him every week, no matter how sick she was from treatments. (In her spare time, she wrote a book, “My Breast Year Ever,” where she delved into her own mortality, with a humorous outlook still evident today.)  

“Their baby was conceived on the night of my lumpectomy,” Canny says of her surgeon and her surgeon’s husband. “So my left breast is a very powerful aphrodisiac.” 

Even Momeni was a referral through friends. His mother, Canny says, is a friend of a friend. 

In addition to going after different jurisdictions around the country to ensure inmates’ basic human right to menstrual products, Canny has sued counties for not sound-proofing attorney-client meeting rooms at jails, for spying on attorney-client emails, or for more gruesome cases of inhumane jail conditions

Sometimes, it takes its toll. Though she tends to see the good in people like Momeni, she has had some clients she “really didn’t like,” and even the death penalty case with the San Quentin client left her traumatized.

“There definitely is a phenomenon of secondary PTSD,” Canny says. 

To relax, she meditates, exercises, and treats herself to lots of vacation time: The week Momeni was arrested, Canny was away in Paris. One district attorney remembered a court date postponement because Canny had shattered her shoulder while swimming with humpback whales. In October she will head to Nepal, where she has visited some 20 times since her 1994 death penalty case. 

“I didn’t wanna commit suicide or drink or get high, so I went to Nepal to calm myself,” Canny says of that first trip, 30 years ago. 

Naturally, she’s befriended plenty of sherpas. And it’s not necessarily all fun and games: While she’s there, she will probably check in on some of the humanitarian projects she helps with at the American Himalayan Foundation. 

“I pray,” Canny says. “I don’t know if I believe in God, but I always am praying to the God I don’t believe in.” 

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REPORTER. Eleni is our reporter focused on policing in San Francisco. She first moved to the city on a whim nearly 10 years ago, and the Mission has become her home. Follow her on Twitter @miss_elenius.

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  1. This gasbag defense lawyer claimed in the paper Lee had a “Walgreens level” of drugs in his system (whatever that means), but actually they found just two drugs in Lee’s system. Apparently this lawyer is prone to exageration and overplaying her hand. As I understand it this lady lawyer profiled above got the defendants sister to button up her lip – she is not cooperating with the police or the DA’s office. I don’t normally root for DA’s, but when it comes to murder – well there is no excuse for that. I hope this lady lawyers client get’s the meximum sentence, he murdered Lee in cold blood for no reason.

  2. I sympathize with the family of the victim and understand the objections to the way the article centres on the attorney and not the victim. Completely understand that point of view.

    However the article is about this attorney and her past life experiences that shape her views on life and her interpretation of legal issues. It is up to a judge or jury to digest the facts of this murder trial and decide whether the accused is guilty or not guilty. What people outside the case speak and share their opinions are their personal views that are outside noise that don’t decide the court’s final outcome.

    Everyone is entitled to their opinion but it is just that an opinion.

  3. She sounds like a remarkable woman and has her work cut out for her with this client, who looks guilty as hell and not even a little bit remorseful, or even likable. He will probably get a plea bargain and do 25 to life best case.

  4. Momeni is a savage killer, unless there is something HUUUUUGE that I’m missing here.

  5. I am confused why the defense attorney is the focus of the story instead of the suspect that killed someone. Bob Lee is dead. If I were murdered in the street with a kitchen knife I would expect my family would want a story about that.

    1. Dear sir or madam — 

      With all due respect, this and every publication has written many stories on the death of Bob Lee. They are not difficult to find.


  6. It’s a defense attorney’s job to represent their client to their absolute best ability. If I was accused of a crime, I’d want an attorney who was like a dog with a bone. It’s up to the prosecutor to prove their case.

  7. When considering “the importance of context for people accused of crimes”, don’t forget the victims of crimes, and for that matter, all the ordinary, decent, law abiding people who don’t commit crimes. I’m fed up with, “Oh, society made him do it”, or, “She had such a bad home life.” Their victims are still victims, no matter what, and there are lots of people who are poor or disadvantaged, or had difficult backgrounds, who do not commit crimes. People need to be held responsible for their own behavior. It’s not someone else’s fault.

    1. Mark, this is exactly what I was thinking! Especially when the person is a fully grown adult with plenty of life experience.