A remarkable look at men and women in a district attorney's office
Special to The Seattle Times
The American justice system is designed to err on the side of allowing the guilty to go free rather than incarcerate the innocent. But when an innocent defendant enters the criminal justice system, grievous mistakes can occur, even when prosecutors play by the rules.
Gary Delsohn, a Sacramento Bee reporter, reached that conclusion after intensive research into the wrongful conviction of David Jonathan Quindt by trial prosecutor Mark Curry. Police arrested Quindt as a murder suspect on the basis of an eyewitness identification. Prosecutor Curry had no reason to doubt the eyewitness, who lived at the home where the murder occurred.
It was only after Curry won the murder conviction that he received a call from a longtime informant who told the prosecutor the actual perpetrators were still at large.
Surprised, indeed shocked, at the information, Curry did what some prosecutors refuse to do — he admitted doubt. Re-opening the investigation, Curry uncovered new information to cast doubt on the eyewitness identification. He freed Quindt from prison, then prosecuted the actual perpetrators successfully.
Delsohn obtained special access to the Sacramento district attorney's office while researching his book "The Prosecutors." Delsohn's detailed, insightful reporting on the Quindt case is typical of the entire book. His unusual journalistic access to a prosecutor's office led to these insights, some supportive of the conventional wisdom, others counterintuitive:
• Prosecutors, even the corrupt or inept ones, have chosen a career filled with difficulties. They deal with the dregs of society regularly; the witnesses and even the victims are sometimes as unpleasant as the defendants. As Delsohn phrases it, "Murders. Rapes. Sexual assaults against children. Beatings. Robberies. Dope deals. Burglaries. Career criminals and criminals trying to create a career of crime. This is it. Every day of the week, every week of the year. It slows up, but it never stops." Even the so-called victories frequently are accompanied by regret: "A life sentence isn't enough, it should have been the death penalty; a victim's family looks to the DA for justice only to feel like victims again from the ordeal of going to trial; in domestic violence [cases], victims recant and wind up convinced it's the prosecutor who's the enemy not the son of a bitch who beat them up."
• These difficulties should never be forgotten. But neither should something else: "Inside the courtroom and, more often ... outside the courtroom, they will exercise their extraordinary power and authority to alter lives forever."
• It is human nature for some prosecutors to become emotionally involved in some cases, especially those involving what Delsohn calls "a righteous victim." Delsohn says any prosecutor being honest with herself "will concede those are the cases they get the most worked up about."
• In many divisions of a prosecutor's office, career lawyers have accumulated expertise and power, making them as influential in some ways as the elected district attorney.
Delsohn's book focuses on one such career prosecutor, John Matthew O'Mara, in charge of handling homicide cases. Elected district attorney Jan Scully "is the boss," Delsohn observes, but O'Mara is "clearly the dominant voice and personality in the office." In more than 2,000 cases, Delsohn notes, "every time the detectives came over to try to convince him to file charges after they had a suspect, O'Mara alone decided whether the cops had collected enough evidence for the DA to accuse someone officially of being a murderer."
• Rigor has to come from within the office so that innocent individuals are not charged with crimes, so that the reasonable doubt standard is observed. "There are prosecutors who behave as rigid, fire-breathing ideologues, firm in the belief they're doing the Lord's work keeping the ... city safe from depraved killers. O'Mara is not one of them."
• The personalities of each prosecutor, and each defense attorney, matter when it comes to whether a case will go to trial, and how the case will be tried if it does.
Delsohn infuses the book with a case that started as an armed robbery of a bakery but turned into a homicide when a member of the gang panicked. A senior prosecutor named Steve Harrold, who spends most of his time as a supervisor, decides to try the case with a partner named Dawn Bladet. As Delsohn comes to learn, Bladet "can infuriate a defense attorney, because she's never willing to let one get away with anything. Harrold's too much of a gentleman to go for the throat. He can't stand to make it personal. Bladet will, at one point or another, attack every one of the defense attorneys in the [case], just as she attacks Harrold on occasion."
• During the heat of a trial, prosecutorial error or outright misconduct is not always inadvertent.
Bladet wants to show the jury a photograph of the dead victim during her opening statement. She knows the judge will probably consider that prejudicial. She checks with O'Mara to discuss ways around the prohibition; he is not encouraging. Then, according to Delsohn's account, Bladet tells O'Mara, "I'm going to just put it there and see what happens. It's not fair these [defendants] can sit there all cleaned up and looking innocent and the ... jury can't even see a picture of Jason. I'd like to put the ... autopsy pictures up there so the jury can see what these [defendants] did to him."
When O'Mara hears that the defense has the photo in its possession, and thus will not be improperly blindsided, he tells Bladet to try the tactic, on the assumption the judge will stop short of declaring a mistrial. So Bladet shows the picture to the jury and is amazed when the defense lawyers fail to object.
Later, during trial, while questioning an accomplice to the murder (her star witness who has accepted a deal) about his past, Bladet asks, "You don't have a criminal record, do you?" Delsohn says she knows "it violates the rules of evidence, but she doesn't care. Bladet wants the jurors to know the district attorney made a deal with Garcia because he was not a convicted criminal. By inference, she hopes [the jurors] will think the others are. Such testimony is strictly off limits." Defense counsel objects. But Bladet has made her point.
So has Delsohn in this remarkable book.
Steve Weinberg is a journalist in Columbia, Mo., who writes frequently about the role of the prosecutor in the criminal justice system.
Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company