The Prosecutors: A Year in the Life of a District Attorney’s Office
By Gary Delsohn (Dutton, 400 pp., $24.95)
The American justice system is designed to err on the side of allowing the guilty to go free rather than incarcerating the innocent. But mistakes can occur when an innocent defendant enters the criminal justice system. Most of those mistakes are honestan earnest eyewitness incorrectly identifying the alleged perpetrator, for example. But in a criminal justice system where everybodyincluding the voters who elect district attorneysplaces an emphasis on winning, some errors appear to be calculated. Police or prosecutors may withhold evidence that could prove a defendant’s innocence or at least explain mitigating circumstances.
While police misconduct often gets halted by prosecutors, frequently there’s nobody in the know to blow the whistle on prosecutorial misconduct. Few non-lawyers understand fully how prosecutors operate day to day, what they must do to satisfy defense lawyers, judges, jurors and the general public, all of whom approach a court case with varying levels of knowledge and experience, not to mention different points of view. Now comes a book that explains to readers just how complex and challenging the prosecutor’s job is.
Sacramento Bee reporter Gary Delsohn obtained special access to the district attorney’s office in Sacramento, Calif., while researching his book, The Prosecutors: A Year in the Life of a District Attorney’s Office. The latitude he was given to observe the state’s prosecutors was so rare as to be astounding. Prosecutors’ offices are usually off limits to journalists, and understandably so; a lot of sensitive information is floating around. It would never occur to most journalists to ask for an insider’s seat, nor would it occur to most prosecutors to say yes. But Jan Scully, the district attorney in Sacramento, did. She placed almost no conditions on Delsohn’s access, except that he could publish nothing based on his observations until after his year inside ended. So Delsohn set up at a desk, attended inner-office meetings, followed prosecutors to crime scenes, listened in on interviews, sat through court sessions and sometimes ate and drank with Scully’s staff members.
Delsohn ends up being both tough on prosecutors and sympathetic to them, often on the same page. One of his case studies, for example, suggests that at least occasionally, a prosecutor could not have foreseen the most grievous mistake of all: charging the wrong person with murder, taking him to trial and winning a conviction based on an incorrect eyewitness identification. Delsohn reached this conclusion after researching the wrongful conviction of David Jonathan Quindt, and his reporting on the case is typical of the entire book: He’s tough on the prosecutor who erred, but understanding of how the error occurred.
Prosecutors, even the corrupt or inept ones, have chosen a career filled with difficulties, Delsohn tells us. 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.”
In many divisions of a prosecutor’s office, we learn, career lawyers have accumulated enough power to make them, in some ways, as influential as the elected district attorney. Delsohn’s book examines one such career prosecutor, John Matthew O’Mara, in charge of the Sacramento district attorney’s homicide cases. In more than 2,000 instances, the author 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.”
It’s scary that one lawyer can exercise so much authority. But someone has to make the final decisions about going to trial or working out a plea bargain, about seeking the death penalty or a life term. Scully seems comfortable delegating such decision making to O’Mara, knowing her reelection might depend on his judgment. In a different district attorney’s office, somebody less scrupulous than O’Mara could be a disaster. Delsohn seems convinced that O’Mara is about as good as it gets.
Throughout The Prosecutors, Delsohn keeps going back to one specific homicide case, a bakery robbery that turned murderous, and he follows the defendants as they move through the system toward trial. In so doing, the author provides a useful connecting thread that helps to bind his book, which ends up covering a number of different cases. Indeed, Delsohn could have built the entire book around one case, around one prosecutor. Instead, he has constructed a complex study that vividly conveys the intricacies and challenges of the prosecutor’s job.
In this particular case, Delsohn contrasts the modus operandi of the two collaborating assistant district attorneys, in the process demonstrating just how much the criminal justice system turns on individual prosecutors’ personalities. Senior prosecutor Steve Harrold decides to try the defendants before a jury with Dawn Bladet, a less experienced prosecutor. As the author 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.”
Every prosecutor, the author tells us, is sworn to seek justice first, even if that quest means “losing” a case. After all, prosecutors are supposed to serve the entire citizenry, not just one client. But as Delsohn’s account of Bladet suggests, prosecutors may be more concerned about simply putting the bad guys behind bars, regardless of the legal standards they are bound to uphold. Ever the observant reporter, he picks up on how 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, but after checking with her supervisor O’Mara, she tells him, “I’m going to just put it there and see what happens.” O’Mara encourages her to go ahead and try the tactic, on the assumption the judge will stop short of declaring a mistrial.
Such questionable judgments prove typical of Bladet’s work during the trial. At one point, she asks her star witness a question that she knows “violates the rules of evidence, but she doesn’t care.” Naturally, defense counsel objects. But by then, Bladet has already made her point.
So has Delsohn in this remarkable book.
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