Inside the DA’s Office

Unfortunately, there aren’t many insider accounts of closed institutions.

Writer Ted Conover wrote about being a prison guard in “Newjack.” Lawrence Wright wrote about being a reporter for a Saudi Arabian newspaper in the New Yorker. Ernie Fitzgerald wrote about corruption in Pentagon procurement in “The High Priests of Waste.” Neo-vegetarian Howard Lyman wrote about his life as a cattleman in “Mad Cowboy.” Jonathan Harr wrote about the behind-the-scenes maneuvering of the country’s biggest environmental lawsuit in “A Civil Action”…

These occasional fascinating accounts offer a glimpse into how closed institutions work, why and how they do what they do — or don’t do what they should do.

Last year Sacramento Bee reporter Gary Delsohn wrote about his year-long experience in the Sacramento County District Attorney’s office in “The Prosecutors: A Year In The Life of a District Attorney’s Office.”

Surprisingly, Delsohn got Sacramento County DA Jan Scully to give him a desk in her sprawling offices to observe the operation for an entire year with only two conditions: 1. He couldn’t write about open cases, and 2. He had to clear prosecutor quotes with Scully prior to publication. The second condition wasn’t enforced because Delsohn didn’t use any potentially offending quotes about his near-coworkers.

Although we get lots of real and fictional accounts of the actions of District Attorneys in the popular media, and we may think we know a little about what DAs do, we seldom hear what really goes on behind the DA’s door. Delsohn’s book promised to fill the gap.

But Delsohn fails to deliver.

He spends too much time on trials, and not nearly enough on the inner workings of the prosecutor’s office; focuses only on high-profile murder cases; doesn’t do enough case follow-up, failing to note the nature of any appeals, or of any appellate actions the DA was involved in; spends too much time quoting prosecutors’ on-the-record closing statements and those of victim families; and is very one-sided in his portrayal of the prosecutors as uniformly fine, sympathetic upstanding characters triumphing over the bad guys, detectives’ lapses and defense attorney machinations.

Besides describing some of behind the scenes negotiations in the Symbionese Liberation Army’s 25-year old Emily Harris et al murder case (at a bank in Carmichael, a suburb of Sacramento), the book does at least remind us of some important aspects of the judicial system.

Prosecutors, investigators and cops can and do routinely lie — as do criminals, of course. Lies and personalities have become an important part of a supposedly truth-seeking, impartial justice system. Cops, prosecutors and investigators can say things like, “The other guy already told us all about it.” Or, “We have your fingerprints on the murder weapon.” Or, “We have a witnesses who saw you…” Even when it’s not true.

Enormous amounts of resources are expended in prosecuting obviously guilty people just so that the defendant can take a shot at a lighter sentence. In one case Delsohn relates, more than four years and millions of dollars were used to put away a murdering gang-banger who, along with his teenage associates, killed a defenseless bread store clerk with a sawed off Mossberg 12-gauge shotgun in the commission of a robbery when the gang banger got pissed off because the bread store didn’t have much money when they robbed it. The investigation only required following up on a tip from a former friend of the gang-banger and getting one of his teenage assistants to testify against the shotgun-wielder in exchange for a lighter sentence. The only reason for the (costly) trial was that the murdering scumbag thought he might escape the death penalty. He did.

Standards of prosecution in DA’s offices are very high. In serious crimes, DAs want a well-documented and fully researched case before they go to trial. That’s not easy — it’s one of the reasons plea bargains are so common. Convincing a jury to convict on an initial charge can be much harder and more expensive than convincing a defendant to plead to a lesser charge. Because of the Three Strikes Law and the long sentences nonviolent offenders face under it, many in this category have no real choice but to exercise their right to a jury trial, seriously burdening the judicial system and greatly increasing the cost — even where there’s little question of guilt. Another reason DA’s offices like plea bargains is that cops and investigators routinely screw up, at least in terms of prosecuting the case. They don’t get enough evidence, screw up the crime scene, make procedural errors. They miss opportunities to interrogate suspects before they clam up. And they don’t have to disclose their screw ups to the defense.

Although prosecution standards are high, the criteria for success is relatively low. Prosecutors consider plea bargains and ordinary convictions as successes, even if the resulting sentence looks light to ordinary citizens.

Most alleged perps are pretty stupid. You’d think suspects in serious cases would at least know by now not to show up for interviews with seemingly friendly cops and investigators without a lawyer. Or not to make transparently disprovable statements on tape that make them sound guilty even if they’re not.

Prosecutors have tremendous discretion in how they charge cases — particularly their discretion as to who will face a possible death sentence. Even in death penalty cases, the decision to seek the death penalty can be based on one senior prosecutor’s personal desires.

Most legal work is dull and plodding.

But any ordinary follower of the judicial system who might pick up Delsohn’s book already knows these things.

By telling us mostly what we know using tedious courtroom transcriptions and ignoring the smaller cases, the errors, the personality conflicts, the working conditions, the office politics, the incompetence, etc., Delsohn’s book becomes more of a PR job for the DA. (Which may have been Scully’s intent in the first place.)

But you do have to admire the usually mediaphobic Sacramento DA for even letting Delsohn in. I don’t think our popular local Mendocino DA Norm Vroman, although well-known for his relative openness, would let me spend a year in his office.

MARK SCARAMELLA is the managing editor of the Anderson Valley Advertiser. He can be reached at: themaj@pacific.net

 

MARK SCARAMELLA is the Managing Editor of the Anderson Valley Advertiser in Mendocino County, California. (www.theava.com). He can be reached at themaj@pacific.net.

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