DN's suspended top prosecutor and his replacement voice vastly different opinions
Del Norte is being "victimized" by lax prosecution on the part of acting District Attorney Katherine Micks, according to her suspended predecessor, Jon Alexander.
He points to a decline in jury trials and decisions to either drop or reduce charges in cases he initially charged as signs that the office he used to run is not performing well. She says she just has a different approach to the job.
And top law enforcement officials say Micks has stabilized the office after some initial difficulties when she took over.
The county Board of Supervisors is expected to begin interviews before the end of the year for applicants seeking to serve out the remainder of Alexander's term through the end of 2014. Supervisors suspended him in April after a State Bar judge recommended he be disbarred and took away his right to practice law pending a final decision by the state Supreme Court.
Following a judge's Nov. 1 decision to uphold Alexander's suspension by supervisors, he made his criticism of Micks public.
"My real sadness today is not personal, but for the people of this county who have been disenfranchised and its citizens and the brave men and women of law enforcement who continue to be victimized by an acting DA who chooses to negotiate rather than prosecute cases," Alexander wrote in an e-mail to a Triplicate reporter.
In an interview last week, Alexander elaborated.
"This is nothing personal, however, what I and many others in law enforcement and the court system have seen in the past eight months since the 'caretaker administration' was introduced has been a complete reversal of the vigorous prosecution my administration promised and brought to that office," said Alexander.
He points to a sharp decline in jury trials and said there have been an uptick in rejections of cases forwarded by law enforcement to the DA's Office and soft resolutions under Micks' watch of cases that he charged while he was still the DA.
"Obviously the sheer numbers of trials itself is not the only indication of success, but you cannot have statistics such as doing two trials in eight months or witnessing the mass rejections of our officers' cases or the sweetheart plea deals, you can't look at all of that and not know that something is broken," said Alexander.
Focused on media?
Micks paints a different picture.
When she inherited the lead prosecutor position, there was a backlog of 100 reports "found in a drawer" that she had to deal with on top of the new filings,all with one less attorney in the office, Micks said.
Since she worked through the backlog, rejections have gone back to a more normal rate as there is amore normal case load, Micks said.
"Just as Mr. Alexander did not and will not admit any wrongdoing with the State Bar, he also refuses to acknowledge that some of the cases he filed were not cases that could be proved beyond a reasonable doubt," said Micks. "Mr. Alexander was focused on his portrayal in the media and did not resolve cases or make tough decisions that could result in unfavorable media coverage. He was paralyzed into inaction so that after ensuring a front page story on a case, the case would languish with no resolution or trial."
One example Alexander has highlighted was an embezzlement case against the former program manager of the Del Norte County Senior Center accused of taking $6,576 in public funds. Alexander filed 46 felony counts against the defendant in September 2011. A month later, he dropped half of those counts.
At the time, Alexander said the charges were dismissed for food purchases that may have been properly made for employees and clients.
Then in December 2012, Alexander dismissed and refiled the entire case, including 10 embezzlement charges with a broadened criteria to prove a crime was committed as well as four second-degree burglary charges and a single forgery count.
"There appeared to be no case law on the issue," said Alexander at the time. "Although it provides for the same penalties, we thought that the possibility it could be overturned on that did exist. We made a decision to ensure that possibility did not arise."
"We pared it down because we didn't want to exhaust the jury," said Alexander last week. "There was never a time that we didn't think all of them were triable."
Since his suspension, the case was resolved with a no-contest plea for the forgery charge. Micks explained at the time that the defendant used her personal cards for purchases and the amount alleged to have been embezzled was actually $2,700, which she paid back before charges were filed.
"Mr. Alexander made the determination not to go after any program charges against (the defendant) and those are the charges that really affected the senior center money," said Micks last week. "Instead he decided to go after center embezzlement charges which had only resulted in a couple thousands of dollars lost, most of which (the defendant) paid prior to the filing of the charges. Mr. Alexander is trying to place the blame of the resolution on the office after he left, but it was really his decisions and delays that brought about the resolution."
Two views of pot case
Another case cited by Alexander was a 2010 indoor marijuana bust involving about 5,000 plants and more than 50 pounds of dried marijuana - one of the largest confiscations in county history.
It was one of the first cases settled after Alexander's suspension. The main suspect was convicted of a felony - maintaining a place for drug sales - and a misdemeanor - possessing concentrated cannabis - and received three years of informal probation and had to pay $15,000 as part of the eradication costs for the marijuana.
The felony charge was ultimately dismissed as part of a deal that ensured the defendant paid the money by his July sentencing date.
Micks at the time pointed toward the "nebulous" marijuana laws in California that presented a problem in trying the case.
Alexander called it another illustration that "there has been a climate of moving the cases and soft pleas that has been around before I took office and since," said Alexander. "My philosophy was, you don't charge it if you think you can't prove it at trial ... You don't plead a case on the cheap just because you think you might lose. Sometimes you have to try tough cases too, instead of just pleading them because you're getting weak-kneed about going to trial."
Micks said she isn't afraid to go to trial, and attributes the recent decline in trials to a difference in prosecutorial philosophy fromAlexander's.
"Our job is to file and prove (cases)," said Micks. "Sentencing is up to the judge. If you take a case to trial it's up to the judge. Mr. Alexander didn't want the judges to have any discretion, so he would require the defendants to (agree) to a sentence up front. There have been more pleas because we are not demanding people to (agree) to maximum sentences."
"We obviously have vastly differing philosophies of prosecution," said Alexander. He views his as "holding people accused of crimes strictly accountable."
Micks gave a different account of Alexander's philosophy on crime.
"Jon would charge hard and sit on things," said Micks. "When I took over for Jon there had been some cases that were just languishing that I had to resolve."
She acknowledged that many of the plea deals in those cases involved reduced charges.
"My policy is for all of the deputies and myself to charge initially what we can prove without reasonable doubt, which is the standard for every District Attorney's Office in this state," said Micks. "So now we're not having to plead to reduced charges because we've charged what we could prove."
Sheriff, chief weigh in
Sheriff Dean Wilson said the District Attorney's Office has gotten past a rocky transition phase after Alexander was abruptly removed from office.
"Initially, the effects were dramatic," said Wilson. "They didn't have very many active deputy district attorneys. Without the DA doing his prosecution, there was a drop-off in prosecutions being done. That has since gone back up. They've got more deputy DAs now. There's stability back in the office. They're starting to find their footing."
The Sheriff's Office also had some transitioning to do with regards to Micks' case standards and what the DA's Office wants, Wilson said.
"She's done quite well as far as trying to communicate with the agencies," said Wilson. "We've been able to talk with her about those issues."
Still, he hasn't been pleased with all her decisions.
"Do you ever get everything you want? Absolutely not," said Wilson. "There have been cases where we didn't like the plea bargain, thought it was too light given the case we've had. That's nothing new. That's something we in law enforcement always feel. We always feel we have a really good or strong case and this person should be punished for what they've done, but the realities are they can't take every case to trial ... it doesn't matter who's in there."
Police Chief Doug Plack also complimented Micks for communicating with law enforcement agencies.
"She has been very amiable to discuss cases that are currently being investigated," said Plack. "The ultimate goal for the DA's Office is to bring the best case forward to secure a conviction. They have very professional and capable attorneys. They are very conscientious in how they try cases."
'A significant loss'
Across the hall from the DA's Office, Chief of Probation Linda Sanford, a close friend of Alexander, said it would be inappropriate for her to make a "blanket statement" about the performance of theDA's Office.
"(Micks) and that office has to deal with the loss of somebody that was basically doing the work of two prosecutors," said Sanford, referring to Alexander. "It was a significant loss to that office."
Defense Attorney Jim Fallmanwas a prosecutor in the Del Norte DA's Office from 1990 to 2004.
"I don't see (Micks) as being out of line at all," Fallman said. "It's in the realm of decent prosecutorial discretion. She's been tough on the cases where she needs to be tough and there's been compassion where compassion is warranted ... I know certain people are complaining about her. They have their reasons. I'm not coming at her from a bias."
'Not a lone voice'
Micks gave a presentation about the inner workings of the DA's Office to the Board of Supervisors last week. Afterward, supervisors lauded her work.
She presented numbers of how many cases have been filed since last December; a trend showing an increase in filings since she took the helm of the DA's Office in April.
"From my constituents, they tell me there's less drama and things are moving along, so I think you bring a sense of calm to the department," said Supervisors Roger Gitlin.
Supervisor Gerry Hemmingsen thanked her for "stepping up."
Micks said she doesn't take Alexander's criticism personally.
"He would be critical of anybody in this position," she said. "I think we're all professionals in the office and I think we understand the criticism as being motivated by his personal struggles."
Alexander said his motivation is wanting the best for the community.
"This is not a personal vendetta against the DA's Office ... if you talk to the officers in the street or the people in the courthouse, you know I am not a lone voice," said Alexander.
Reach Anthony Skeens at firstname.lastname@example.org.