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Gary Delsohn
The Sacramento Bee
JURIST Special Guest Columnist

When I tell people I was allowed to spend a year hanging around the Sacramento County District Attorney's office as a fly on the wall and that I wrote a book about the experience (The Prosecutors; A Year Inside the Life of a District Attorney's Office; Dutton, 2003) they invariably want to know what I found that was surprising. Were there aspects of the experience that changed my view of the criminal justice system or the people who work in it?

As a journalist for 27 years, I've covered criminal justice issues off and on for much of my career. I'm generally familiar with how the system works. But I was surprised, if that's the right word, by much of what I saw. It had very little to do with the law, however.

My belief is that however flawed the system might be, the right thing happens in the vast majority of cases. In Sacramento, the capital of California but only its fourth largest city, more than 13,000 felonies are filed a year. The office gets an equal number of misdemeanors. The conveyor belt of cases never stops. Some defendants are going to be sentenced unjustly. Some might even be found guilty for crimes they didn't commit. The system only has as much integrity as the people who work in it. One case of someone wrongly convicted or sentenced unfairly is one too much, but when one examines the numbers, they are not as great as the critics would have us believe.

But here are some of the observations I'm left with after a year-long crash course in what really goes on behind the prosecutors' closed doors. It's not anything like what we see on the glitzy TV shows like Law and Order that entertain but do little to elucidate.

The work can take an enormous toll on the people who do it. As I write in the book, "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."

It's not exactly the type of work you can take home and share with your spouse. I have seen prosecutors eat lunch while passing around the most gruesome crime scene photos imaginable. If that doesn't take a chink out of your soul there's probably something wrong with you. Relationships can get strained because it becomes hard to relate to anyone not living in the same world. As a prosecutor, you have to work hard to leave that stuff behind at the office or your life can get very lonely.

One of the great myths of American life is that all law enforcement agencies are on the same wave length, working in concert to solve crimes, protect the public and prosecute the bad guys. Whenever you see a sheriff or FBI spokesman patting themselves on the back for yet another example of inter-jurisdictional cooperation when a high-profile crime is solved, be suspicious. Turf battles are real and they often get in the way of doing what's right. In Sacramento, it varies depending on the people in charge, but there is often a vigorous and occasionally petty rivalry between the FBI, the sheriff, the local cops and the district attorney's office. When you throw the state attorney general and U.S. Attorney's office into the mix, the rivalries and ego battles can be volatile. I saw several examples of this firsthand, but I came away thinking it's probably not a bad thing. The district attorney's office, in particular, should not instinctively accept what the cops and feds say about who should be arrested and charged. Prosecutors need to put cops through the ringer and make sure the case is prosecutable and solid. When they lose that independence and skepticism bad things can and do happen.

In one case I examined, a young man who admittedly had been living a low-grade criminal lifestyle had been prosecuted for a murder he didn't commit. Some thieves broke into a house where the father was growing high-grade pot plants and when the encounter turned chaotic, a young man was killed and the daughter of the pot-growing dad seriously wounded. She positively identified her assailant as the man convicted by the DA. The prosecutor was certain the sheriff's detectives had the right man as the killer and a jury quickly convicted him of first-degree murder. He was about to be sentenced to one of the state's toughest prisons, where they send the convicts who have no hope of ever getting out, when a snitch in an old case called prosecutor Mark Curry and said he had the wrong guy.

Curry did what a lot of prosecutors don't do: he followed the lead and quickly unraveled his own case. The man convicted wrongly was freed and four new defendants, men whose names never came up in the sheriff department's original investigation, was arrested. Two confessed and the real killers are now serving lengthy sentences.

Both the cops and prosecutors should have been more skeptical from the start, but it's hard not to salute the prosecutor for having the integrity to admit - and admit very quickly - that a serious mistake had been made. In this extraordinary and frightening example of justice gone awry, even the man wrongly convicted forgave Mr. Curry. David Quindt, the defendant, told me Curry was just doing his job and that he, Quindt, had been hanging around with bad people, behaving like a thug and was a logical suspect since he traveled in some of the same circles as the people who actually committed the murder. He was the wrong man convicted for the right reasons and in this case, the prosecutor knew it was far better to admit he made a terrible mistake than compound it by pretending he was infallible. It shows just how fragile the system can be.

Gary Delsohn is a senior writer for The Sacramento Bee and the author of The Prosecutors: A Year Inside the Life of a District Attorney's Office (Dutton, 2003).

September 4, 2003


JURIST Special Guest Columnist Gary Delsohn is a senior writer for The Sacramento Bee. A recipient of the Alicia Patterson Foundation Fellowship, he is a past Knight Fellow at Stanford University. His work has been featured in, the Denver Post, and the Denver Rocky Mountain News. Mr. Delsohn lives in Sacramento, California. The Prosecutors is his first book.