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PERSONAL PERSPECTIVE : L.A.'s Latest Sport: Trashing the D.A.'s Office

July 17, 1994|Katherine Mader | Katherine Mader is a Los Angeles County deputy district attorney and former criminal-defense lawyer who, among other defendants, represented Angelo Buono in the Hillside Strangler case. The views expressed here are her own.

It's so easy to kick 'em when they're down. "The Los Angeles County district attorney's office can't win the big ones." "All the older, good deputy district attorneys have left to become judges." "The district attorney should consider contracting out for legal talent." Any politician, talk-show host or shock jock can win points by participating in such "dumping," and no one seems to be fighting back.

To be sure, the district attorney's office has not had terrific results in some recent well-publicized cases. There were no convictions in the McMartin Preschool child-molestation case. Nor in the Rodney G. King-beating trial. And prosecutors failed to win murder verdicts in the Menendez brothers' case. Of course, the same critics rarely mention other highly publicized cases that resulted in convictions, such as the Cotton Club murders and the Charles H. Keating Jr. securities fraud. Indeed, the district attorney's office successfully prosecutes 93% of the felony and 99% of the misdemeanor cases it acts on. But that's not front-page news.

So what is the source of the bad rap? First, we are, unfortunately, living in a culture in which "attack journalism" and mean-spirited talk-show hosts play prominent and rewarding roles.

Second, it appears journalists are desperate not to be left on the sidelines of a story. If the "story of the week" is that the district attorney's office can't try cases, within 24 hours of one story appearing, all forms of media jump on the bandwagon and tout the same theme. Guest speakers, usually from the defense bar, turn up on talk shows criticizing prosecutors. Usually, they haven't ever won any "big" case against the office. Yet, why turn down free publicity and an opportunity to pick up new clients? Right now, it's a pretty tough world for criminal defense attorneys.

Another explanation involves office politics. A year ago, Gil Garcetti won the election for district attorney. Not everyone in the office supported him, however. In fact, one deputy district attorney, still working in the office, ran against him. Presumably, he plans to run again. Why is it that no one in the media seems to appreciate the possibility that the unhappy deputy district attorneys quoted in magazine articles and other stories on the office have their own political agendas? Suckering the media to buy your negative rap sure beats raising campaign funds and paying for the attack ad yourself.

Every day, I watch dozens of hard-working deputy district attorneys, who are also talented trial lawyers, break their backs to achieve good results for the office and, most important, for the community. Furthermore, the office has on its staff a number of nationally recognized experts in various specialties. Unfortunately, the public only pays attention, at the media's direction, to a couple of high-profile cases in which the results weren't so great.

But what about the "little" murders? I can assure you that the pain suffered by family and friends of murder victims who are never featured in newspapers is every bit a great as that suffered by the celebrated. There's also no difference in the degree of difficulty in prosecuting these "little" cases, especially those involving gangs, in which most witnesses are fearful of participating and prosecutors have to beg them to come forward. There are dozens and dozens of prosecutors who work night and day on these "little" cases--without overtime pay, without thanks--and treat each one as though it were the "biggest" murder in the world.

Every month, the district attorney's office publishes a "Kudos" list, on which appears the names of prosecutors who achieve trial success where none was thought possible. This list, however, never seems to warrant a news story.

Nonetheless, perhaps the surge of critical interest in the district attorney's office can produce some positive results. Believe it or not, the world of computers has still not arrived for most prosecutors. Fax machines are few and far between. Many senior prosecutors share offices with several deputies. Many investigators have to delay interviews because the cars they share are continuously in the shop.

So why continue a career as a prosecutor? I can think of numerous prosecutors who passed up much more lucrative jobs. It's not that it feels good to lock someone up. What feels good is making the justice system work, and feeling that a case was solved and a conviction won because of individual extra effort. The high-level dose of bandwagon criticism is annoying because it is generally administered by ignorant commentators or others with their own political agenda. But it's not going to cause any of us to work less hard on our cases. And our conviction rate is going to remain just as high.*

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