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O.C. prosecutor decides it's time to wave goodbye

Chuck Middleton, who won the Haidl rape case, restored morale and stability to D.A. office in turmoil.

January 28, 2007|Christine Hanley | Times Staff Writer

Up before the sun, one of Orange County's most seasoned prosecutors spends as many mornings as he can far south of his top floor office in Santa Ana, paddling out to sea in search of waves that will help carry him through the day.

Those well acquainted with his straight-laced reputation might find it hard to imagine Chuck Middleton wearing anything but a tailored suit, or having a hair out of place. But surfing has long been a secret to his success. And by week's end, he will no longer have to hustle out of the ocean, peel off his wetsuit, and get polished up for work.

Come Thursday, Middleton is retiring as second-in-command to Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas, leaving behind a long and distinguished career that he brought to a close with a flourish: salvaging a high-profile sexual assault case against the son of an assistant sheriff and two other young men.

The reason for his decision is simple: The demands that come with being in charge of day-to-day operations of such a large crime-fighting organization can be overwhelming. At 58, Middleton is ready for a more laid-back lifestyle.

"I've still got my health. And I still do a lot of things outside the office," he said. "And now it's time to enjoy it all. The job is stressful ... and it's time to reduce that stress."


For nearly 30 years, Middleton has been helping take Orange County's toughest criminals off the street. Known for his honesty, integrity and even-handedness, he has earned high praise from his peers and the legal community outside the district attorney's office. With nearly 100 trials under his belt, including eight death-penalty cases, his courtroom skills and legal expertise have been an invaluable resource to deputy prosecutors under his wing.

As chief assistant the last six years, Middleton is widely credited for restoring morale and stability to an agency plagued by turmoil and infighting during Rackauckas' early administration, when Rackauckas reassigned a handful of prosecutors who supported his political opponent in the 1998 and 2002 elections. As the man in charge of promotions, rotations and recruiting, Middleton has made sure that moves are based on merit, not politics, and even reached out to those who have been critical of the administration, several prosecutors said.

"Chuck's guided that process," said Assistant Dist. Atty. David Brent, who supervises the homicide unit and serves on the Death Penalty Review Committee with Middleton.

Like a lot of his colleagues, Brent seeks out Middleton's advice, and has learned from watching him in action. One of his fondest recollections is when Middleton, using a detail he found buried in a psychology report, picked apart the testimony of a witness testifying on behalf of Rosie Alfaro, who stabbed a young girl to cover up a burglary and in 1992 became the first Orange County woman to be sentenced to death.

"He was so thorough, only Chuck could have discovered something like that," Brent said. "He could destroy an unprepared witness. "

To this day, Brent still lugs the briefcase Middleton handed down to him about 15 years ago to every major trial, considering it an "honor" to have it beside him. Middleton's wife had bought him a new briefcase, and he thought the older one, still in good shape, shouldn't go to waste.

"I respect him so much. It's meant so much to me," Brent said. "He's been a great leader. We're going to lose a lot in losing him."

Middleton's law career didn't take root until he returned from the Vietnam War, where he served on a naval air crew that hunted in South Vietnamese waters looking for Russian trawlers that were helping the enemy. He still has a very clear, searing memory of coming under mortar attack: "That leaves certain feelings. Fear."

"As a human being, my time in the service matured me. I was immature when I went in," he said.

When he got back, he finished college, got married and graduated from Western State University College of Law in Fullerton.

His first trial was a misdemeanor case against a defendant who was representing himself. Without another lawyer to take cues from, Middleton was "running blind," he recalled.

He can't remember what the charges were or if he won the case. He does remember being so nervous that he couldn't keep his knees from knocking as he stood behind the dais. And that when it was over, he felt a rush of adrenaline, and "was hooked."

Since that day, he has risen steadily through the ranks, sharpening his courtroom strategies and tactics by listening to and watching everyone around him: jurors, judges, fellow prosecutors and defense attorneys.

Some of his best advice, he said, actually came from a bailiff who watched him come unhinged whenever a certain judge ruled against him: "You're never going to make it. You get so uptight at the judge's rulings," he warned Middleton. "I listened to that. I focused on that," Middleton said.

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