When James E. Rogan, a deputy district attorney in Pasadena, was prosecuting Harles Hamilton for murder earlier this summer, Rogan approached the defendant's mother during a break in the trial.
He told Orine Gitchuway that he was praying for her and said he was sorry about her son's difficulties.
Gitchuway acknowledged Rogan's kindness, but the conversation went no further. Later, a Pasadena Superior Court judge dismissed murder charges against Hamilton after the jury deadlocked, as had three previous juries in the drawn-out case.
What Rogan didn't tell Hamilton's mother was that his sympathy stemmed from experience. Twice, his own mother has been convicted and jailed on felony charges of fraud.
'Grace of God'
"I'm certainly not ashamed of it," says Rogan, 30. In fact, he adds, he makes it a practice to approach relatives of those he prosecutes to "share with them that I know what it is like to sit in court and see someone you love be prosecuted.
"As a district attorney, I run into people who are in trouble and basically come from my background," he says. "It really is a case of 'there but for the grace of God go I.' "
Nothing in Rogan's straight-arrow, pinstriped-suit-and-wing-tips appearance indicates his background as a dirt-poor welfare kid with street smarts.
"If I had to pick a modern-day success story (among) the people I know, I'd pick Jim," said Laura Birkmeyer, a UCLA Law School classmate of Rogan's, now an assistant U.S. attorney in San Diego. "He really has enjoyed a transformation.
"The great thing about Jim's background," she said, "is that, if he needs to, he can get into somebody's face. He knows when he has to be tough and when he is being fed a line."
When Rogan spent a year prosecuting gang members, Birkmeyer said, he sometimes intercepted and returned hand signals that gang members were sending to one another.
Occasionally, Rogan says, when he is arguing a case before a jury, he will "start thinking about where I came from. . . . To this day, it still strikes me as incredible."
He was born in 1957 in San Francisco. His mother was a cocktail waitress, his father a bartender. The couple did not marry, and Jim was placed in the home of his maternal grandparents (his grandfather was a longshoreman), who raised him in a flat in the city's Mission District.
By the time he was 9, both grandparents had died, and he moved in with a great-aunt. Three years later she died. Then Jim moved back with his mother, who had married and had three other children.
His stepfather was an alcoholic. After he blew a hole in the ceiling with a gun, Jim's mother left, taking only the four children and the $128 in her purse.
"I remember being 13 years old and paying for food with food stamps and having older people in line behind me pointing at us, calling us welfare kids. Most of the guys I grew up with, things didn't turn out to be a very happy story for them," says Rogan, who was never arrested himself.
One friend was convicted of murder and others became drug dealers.
"Jim was always the one we went to after we got into trouble. He would tell us what to do to get out of trouble," says a childhood friend, Frank Ambrose, who describes himself as a professional gambler.
"We never had no fathers, so we took care of each other," Ambrose said.
As a teen-ager, Rogan lived in Pinole, on the east side of San Francisco Bay. He dropped out of high school in the 10th grade. "I was a bright kid, and high school bored me," he says.
The oldest child, he went to work to help support his family.
"We went through a lot of turmoil," his mother, Alice Rogan, says today. "He was like a little father to the other kids."
On his 18th birthday, he enrolled in Chabot Junior College. Two years later, he transferred to UC Berkeley.
While Rogan was in college, his mother was arrested for welfare fraud. She went to jail for three weeks. Four years later, she was imprisoned again, for six months, after being convicted on felony fraud charges resulting from her illegal use of credit cards.
Rogan recalls going to court with his mother and visiting her in jail. "It's kind of hard to be ashamed now of a woman who was willing to go to jail so I could have Christmas presents under the tree, food on the table and clothes on my back," he says. "She was prosecuted and took her punishment, rightfully so."
Now manager of a party supply store near San Francisco, Alice Rogan says: "Jim went through a hell of a lot as a kid. That's why I think he's a good D.A. I used to laugh and say to Jim: 'I'd never want to go before you as a D.A. You'd send me to jail and throw away the key.' "
In 1979 Rogan entered UCLA Law School, working to support himself as a bouncer at an adult movie theater, a pizza maker and a stacker in a tire factory.