By Kent Gray
Triplicate staff writer
Newly installed District Attorney Mike Riese has had a bumpy start since he took office in January.
Tight budgets have kept open positions unfilled and, as he pushed cases through the court, some have objected to an office that seems bent on what takes the least time, rather than what outcome would be most just.
And when he has won trials, as was the case when he convicted a local man of software piracy, some objected that he was making too much of too small a crime.
"I'm happy overall with what we have here. And being in Del Norte County is a major plus. Who could ask for a better job in a better place?"
Riese does hope for the day when he's allowed to hire all the staff members that are budgeted. The shortage is having an impact.
"We're working with 50 percent of support staff right now," said Riese. "That's a huge gap. It affects how many cases we can review, how many we can file and even how many phones we can answer."
Riese, with a satchel full of endorsements from law enforcement groups, was elected last November. He campaigned as being the aggressive, no-nonsense candidate against incumbent Robert Drossel and Family Support attorney Nan Udell.
"Things are working well between all the agencies, the Sheriff's Office, the Police Department, the Highway Patrol and the prison," said Riese. "They realize we are working under staff and doing the best we can. It's fortunate to have the camaraderie between the DA's office and law enforcement."
Riese spends as much time in the courtroom as he does in his office, where he is often on the phone with crime victims or their families or in conference with defense attorneys.
Criticized recently for not pursuing more cases against inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison, Riese said his office will not waste taxpayer money unless prosecuting inmates will make a difference.
"We're still revising our policy on Pelican Bay prosecutions," Riese said. "But people need to realize we have two courts, two judges and the same amount of cases we've always had. The cases have to make sense.
"The principle behind everything we do is what effect can we make on the parole date of an inmate. So, if an inmate has a parole date of 2137 (sometime in the next century), then I can't in good conscience ask the people of this community to sit on a jury, lose a day's pay, possibly close down their businesses, to decide on a case that has no practical effect," he said.
The District Attorney's Office is reimbursed by Sacramento for handling Pelican Bay cases, Riese said, but it is not a profit-making venture and it can take staff away from other cases.
In light of a recent knife attack on an attorney in court by a prison inmate, Riese said he would like to see increased security wherever possible.
"Unfortunately you can't have a blanket shackling procedure for all inmates," he said. "The burden of proof is on us to say whether or not they are dangerous. It just isn't enough to say they are inmates and they are dangerous.'"
Riese said victims of crime are usually satisfied with plea arrangements made by the office because the prison sentences are guaranteed. Sentences can be greater if a defendant is convicted during a jury trial, but there are no guarantees with a trial. And because the office is short a prosecutor, plea arrangements are sometimes a necessity.
"The most labor-intensive portion of this job is when you go to jury trial," he said. "That's where you end up when all negotiations fail. Everything is up for grabs when you go to trial."
In one recent case, Jeffrey Merrill Koogler, 51, pleaded guilty to manslaughter after shooting and killing a man in Klamath last summer. Riese said a plea agreement in this case guarantees Koogler will face 17 to 25 years in prison, which is practically a life sentence considering his age.
"The victim's family was on board with the sentence, although the father wasn't real happy with the manslaughter title. He wanted it to say murder' for posterity reasons," said Riese.
Another example of a plea agreement came last Friday in the case of Neal Rice, 19, of Crescent City.
Rice was charged with attempted murder, along with several assault charges and special allegations. If convicted of all charges at trial, and if given the maximum sentence by the judge, Rice was facing a 12-year prison sentence. Rice pleaded guilty to attempted voluntary manslaughter instead and is now looking at a possible sentence of eight years and two months.
"It's an open plea and the judge has all sentencing options,' said Riese. "He will have to serve at least 85 percent of that time, too."
Riese said he is also working at bringing back the office's bad-check program, despite the staff shortage.
"It's because we are low in staff that we were looking at a private vendor to do the paperwork and hopefully the program pays for itself ... although we may have to do it with existing staff," he said.
"Fortunately, we are seeing an earnest effort on the part of (County Administrative Officer) Jeanine Galatioto and (Personnel Director) Kathy Reese looking for ways to fill my open positions."
Riese said as long as there are no unexpected budget changes from Sacramento, his office should recover both financially and in manpower.
"It's a tough year ahead. But as long as the governor's budget stays intact, we'll be doing fine and holding our own ... I'd say I'm the luckiest DA right now I have the hardest-working staff you could ask for," he said.