D.A. denies domestic violence cases lost importance under his watch

RIVERSIDE – Sources inside the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office contend that under the leadership of Paul Zellerbach, the agency is compromising domestic violence victims in a drive to slash caseloads, limit jury trials and chalk up easy wins.

But Zellerbach fired back that such allegations are “politically motivated.” He told City News Service his office is meeting its public safety obligations and doing so more efficiently than under his predecessor.

The ramifications of the district attorney’s approach to case management has come into focus in the aftermath of the slaying of Kathryn Rose Sanchez, a 34-year-old mother of three killed in her Riverside apartment on June 15, 2012.

Sanchez was stabbed and strangled by 36-year-old Antonio Carreon Jr., who immediately took his own life by lying in front of an approaching train, according to police.

Carreon had a history of domestic violence and was alleged to have assaulted Sanchez on multiple occasions, spawning a police investigation that ended without any charges being filed.

Some career agency employees wonder why.

Sources who have served under three — and in a few cases, four – district attorneys contend that the way the Sanchez case was handled reflects a top-down change in values at the D.A.’s office that has resulted in a dismissive attitude toward domestic violence cases.

“Our district attorney has established a culture where victims of domestic violence are not important,” according to a veteran Riverside County prosecutor, who spoke to City News Service on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.

“That’s clear in the statistics and in the filing decision in this case,” the prosecutor said. “There have been orders, straight from the top, to maximize conviction rates regardless of the effect on victims of crime.”

The prosecutor maintained that the order of the day in the D.A.’s Office is to dispose of cases with an eye to attaining easy wins, even if it means giving defendants “sweetheart deals,” or rejecting – on dubious grounds – cases submitted by law enforcement.

“And you end up with tragic situations like this, where the woman is dead, and her children have been orphaned,” he said.

A Riverside Police Department investigation into Sanchez’s domestic violence allegations was completed before the murder-suicide. But the case was closed and no charges were filed in what remains a murky decision-making process. Police say the D.A.’s Riverside domestic violence unit decided not to proceed; the D.A.’s Office maintains that investigators never submitted the Carreon case for formal review.

Two former Los Angeles County prosecutors consulted by CNS for their assessment of the handling of the case said that, based on the police report alone, there appeared to have been sufficient grounds to file felony charges against Carreon in December 2011.

“Under Rod Pacheco and my first boss, Grover Trask, we had a deep commitment to victims of domestic violence,” according to the deputy district attorney who spoke anonymously. “We knew they were the toughest cases. But we were OK with that because we understood that it’s the tough ones where you prove you’re a real prosecutor. Grover and Rod expected us to fight hard for victims. That standard doesn’t exist under Paul Zellerbach.”

Zellerbach said any suggestion he would seek to curtail the prosecution of domestic violence cases or other crimes to lengthen his office’s win column is “personally offensive” and “makes absolutely no sense.”

“The emphasis here is on trying to achieve justice and fairness and at the same time protect the public,” he told CNS. “To say I’m soft on a particular kind of crime – what’s the basis for that?

“If the facts are there and we can prove it beyond a reasonable doubt, then I want that case prosecuted. That’s the standard. The standard doesn’t change.”

Zellerbach said the decision of what case disposition is best ultimately rests with a supervising prosecutor, who should not seek summary resolution merely because a case is rife with challenges.

“I’m setting the tone of this office, and I don’t believe in shying away from difficult cases,” Zellerbach said. “For 22 years, I was a tough, kick-ass prosecutor. My supervisors know what my feelings and beliefs are. … Whether you’re talking about domestic violence cases, homicides or other cases, the message I’ve espoused is, take it to trial if you can prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.”

But a D.A.’s office employee, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said she and colleagues have witnessed the opposite of a “tough” posture by prosecutors handling domestic violence cases in the last two years.

“It’s gotten to where we’re just doing plea agreements now,” the woman said. “Good felony cases are being pled down to misdemeanors. The perpetrators are not being made to feel the consequences of their actions.

“When we allow these guys to slide by, it’s like a ‘go”signal. We’re telling them, ‘You can get away with it.’ For the victims, it’s another injury. It hurts because you can see the effect it has on the victims. We’re so perplexed.”

According to data supplied by the D.A.’s Office, misdemeanor and felony domestic violence filings countywide changed little from 2010 to 2011, totaling around 2,600 the first year and 2,400 the second.

Zellerbach said the numbers belie claims the agency has taken a careless or negligent attitude toward that category of crime. He could not immediately explain, however, why domestic violence trials in the Riverside metropolitan area had nose-dived.

According to data, there were 53 domestic violence trials in 2010 in the Riverside metro area – the last year of Pacheco’s term – and 20 in 2011, the first year of Zellerbach’s term. That’s a 62 percent drop, even while the number of domestic-violence filings in the metro area declined only 12 percent.

The District Attorney’s Office was unable to provide trial figures from 2010, 2011 or 2012 for either its Southwest Division on Murrieta or the agency’s Desert Division in Indio. Year-end 2012 data for the Riverside metropolitan area was also unavailable, according to D.A.’s Office spokesman John Hall.

In neighboring San Bernardino County, the number of domestic violence trials countywide increased from 24 in 2010 to 27 in 2011.

The drop-off in DV trial activity in Riverside correlates with a general rise in pretrial settlements under Zellerbach, who told CNS that resolving every case by jury is a needless commitment of resources with sometimes bad results.

”Under my predecessor, they would rather try it and lose it,” the D.A. said. ”It’s more beneficial, in my opinion, to take a plea and get something than take it to trial and lose everything. … Whether you’re gaining a conviction at trial or through a plea agreement, you’re holding the person accountable for his conduct. Isn’t that better than him walking scot-free?”

Zellerbach, whose emphasis on conservative budgeting has earned him praise from county administrators and whose efforts to improve relations with the defense Bar since taking office have elevated his status in some circles, does not enjoy the support of many line prosecutors. The 250-member Riverside County Deputy District Attorneys’ Association did not endorse him when he ran against incumbent Rod Pacheco in 2010.

In his 2010 challenge, Zellerbach said Riverside County residents were ”not getting their money’s worth” because the D.A.’s Office was overloading the docket with criminal hearings, resulting in a raft of cases being dismissed for lack of court space and unmet speedy trial guarantees, putting defendants back on the street and increasing risks to public safety.

He said the wheels of justice are turning more efficiently now, thanks to the annual number of criminal jury trials going from 1,000 — the average under Pacheco — to an estimated 600 last year.

According to the District Attorney’s Office, no cases were dismissed for lack of court space in 2011 or 2012. By contrast, between 2007 and 2010, 274 felony and misdemeanor cases were dismissed countywide.

Zellerbach said he was ”distressed” that employees of his office would air their concerns to the media.

”Why weren’t these concerns brought to me first? I have an open-door policy. I’m a big believer of trying to keep things in-house,” he said. ”The fact that they went to the press leads me to conclude this was politically motivated.”

The D.A. said he was not familiar with the Sanchez case but felt certain the manager of the Riverside domestic violence unit, Vince Fabrizio, was doing a ”very good job.”

Zellerbach also insisted that there are no issues bedeviling relations between the D.A.’s office and the Riverside Police Department.

”This shouldn’t be a pissing contest where one calls out the other for not doing something,” he said. ”We work hand-in-hand.”

The D.A. bristled at claims that the agency has failed victims of domestic violence, noting that since taking office two years ago, he’s increased funding for the Family Justice Centers in Riverside and Murrieta, where domestic violence victims can seek assistance, such as with filing restraining orders. He said he’s also dedicated funds for the Family Justice Center that opened this month in Indio.

No one has yet declared plans to oppose Zellerbach in the June 2014 election, though the former Superior Court judge told CNS rumors are rampant that someone in the office intends to challenge him.

The sources who spoke to CNS said they were not motivated by a desire to see the D.A. unseated.

Previous story was incomplete due to coding problems.

15 Responses to "D.A. denies domestic violence cases lost importance under his watch"

  1. Sarah Mitchell   January 30, 2013 at 9:36 am

    This DA has to go at the next election. After Daniel Carruso recklessly ran down those students at Hemet High last year the CHP repeatly found there was nothing wrong with his truck. The DA kept sending the case back until they forced the CHP to say there was brake failure and the kid gets off without any charges. Helen Richardson and the others will have to live with the results of his careless actions for the rest of their lives just because a DA didn’t think it would be an easy win. We don’t need a DA like that.

  2. Franklin   January 30, 2013 at 12:11 pm

    I find it "interesting" that Zellerbach avoids explaining why Carreon wasn’t prosecuted and thus robbing him of the opportunity to kill Sanchez. Instead, all we get is rhetoric from the DA!

  3. KC   January 30, 2013 at 9:45 pm

    The district attorneys office in Riverside County has failed to prosecute domestic violence offenders. I know first hand. There inability to see the risk of these criminals are to those they abuse has left many women living in fear without any other choice but to return to their abusers for fear of possible death, due to the lack of punishment. Riverside County is certainly the county to live in if you are going to be a "wife beater." No worries they will give you a bogus charge of disturbing the peace with the option to expunge the charge for good behavior within a year.

  4. Tico   January 31, 2013 at 8:29 am

    Vote sellerout/zellawhatever out!!!

  5. Senior DA   January 31, 2013 at 10:11 am

    Nonsense. Zellerbach is actually tougher on cases. Ask defense attorneys who try to get deals. Plus there are only 2 prosecutors who have worked under 4 DAs still working. One is Zellerbach and the other made no such suggestion. Who ever wrote the article was played by her/his "sources". This is a Pacheco type tactic as taught by the disgusting political henchman Brian Floyd. If some one wants to challenge the DA for his spot they should do it for honest, actual reasons.

  6. John E.   January 31, 2013 at 11:16 am

    Wow. A woman is dead and all this DA cares about is what he can “prove beyond a reasonable doubt???” What about prosecuting a man who has broken the law, regardless of whether you think you can win a trial? I don’t care about your stats, Mr. Zellerbach, I just want to know that the county I live in is safe.

  7. Annie Laurie L.   February 1, 2013 at 10:50 am

    Interesting whatthe DA said about why he plea bargains . . .He said words to the effect of "the office was not having such good results when we took everything to the jury. I think it’s better to plead them and at least get a little something, rather than lose the case altogether." Think about what he’s saying–bad results when we take it to the jury–I guess that would be an acquittal? An acquittal is presumably where the jury hears the case, and says "not guilty." So, better to put an innocent man on probation for a crime he did not commit, than lose the case altogether???? Or, maybe what he’s saying is a jury is too stupid to convict a guilty man, and they’ll wrongfully acquit him, so better to get what we can??? A prosecutor’s job is to search for and reveal the truth, NOT to get the best deal they can selling an inferior product. And, if a jury acquits, who’s to say they got it wrong? The DA? Cuz he’s so much smarter than the average guy? Either way you slice it, his reasoning is not that of a champion fairness and of the system!!

  8. Stephanie   February 1, 2013 at 7:36 pm

    Zellerbach tough on plea bargains?!?! Let’s be honest about Paul Zellerbach , if the defense attorneys think he’s so tough and won’t give them deals then why have all the big time defense attorneys endorsed him and given him money? Why are their names on his fundraiserlast night (January 31)? They like him for a very specific reason and that’s the deals he gives out to them. Pacheco has nothing to do with the way you he runs the office. Pacheco is gone forever and he’s not up for re-election. Zellerbach is. How about taking responsibility for the mess you’ve made Paul Zellerbach.

  9. Retired Cop   February 1, 2013 at 9:10 pm

    Zellerbach fails to understand that he is no longer a judge. He thinks the District Attorney’s job is just one big settlement conference. He speaks of fairness and pleasing the defense bar. If the D.A. Is pleasing the defense bar he is not doing his job. The defense should face a district attorney who is tough on crime not one who compromises justice.

  10. RivCo Prosecutor   February 2, 2013 at 12:30 am

    It’s clear that most of you have no idea how decisions on cases are made in the DA’s office. It’s the supervising DA’s that make offers on cases, not Paul Z. The SUPERVISOR makes offers on the cases and that decides whether to settle a case. By claiming that cases are being settled for political reasons, you are attacking the integrity of every one of those career prosecutors who are NOT politicians. BTW, who do you think is responsible for promoting those supervisors? That’s right, most were put in management by Pacheco. Did Pacheco promote a bunch of spineless people, or is it possible that these supervisors and the deputies that work under them are actually doing what they think is right? Not everything is politically motivated; but this article clearly is…

  11. In the DV Unit   February 2, 2013 at 10:09 am

    Paul is that you trying to pass yourself as RivCo Prosecutor? And are you throwing your supervisor of the DV Unut under bus, again??? You, are in charge if the office and you "set the tone." And Pacheco again? Paul, seriously, you might be a bit obsessed with Rod. He hasn’t been in charge for over 2 years, you have. This tragedy falls in your shoulders. This story isn’t about us line DAs, it’s about you am your management. Please don’t try to defends our honor, it was never in question. And, we have much better representatives than you.

  12. Ashamed of my colleagues   February 2, 2013 at 3:31 pm

    I am truly ashamed of the people I work with. The fact that DA’s that supposedly care about our office would air out their views in public like this is stupid. Get some class and handle things like adults instad of lying in the paper. Vince Fabrizio is the best supervisor I’ve ever had, and he’s never made me settle a case I thought should be tried. He’s never made me try a case I thought shoudl settle. Basically, he lets me domy job and backs be up. I don’t really know Paul and don’t really care about him. But if this is the way my association plans on supporting Mike Hestrin, then they’ve just guaranteed I will tell everyone I know not to vote for him!

  13. Retired Cop   February 2, 2013 at 10:08 pm

    I always enjoy it when someone chastises another for their actions then launches into the same behavior. Having said that I am confused. One of the promises made by Zellerbach was to give the ability to settle some cases to the line deputies. Now we hear that the supervisors are making these decisions. What happened to that trust PZ had in the court deputies? Apparently I
    This was a hollow promise as were many others. PZ has a bad habit of never taking blame for his own errors. It wasn’t his fault he was centured as a judge and any shortcomings as the DA he blames on his predecessor. Sounds like Obama.

  14. Not Ashamed   February 3, 2013 at 1:02 am

    @ Comment #12, you’re making a lot of assumptions based on rumor and speculation, something that has no place in the DA’s office. I’m pleased that you find your supervisor to be supportive and lets you do your job. However, don’t bury your head in the sand with respect to what is going on in this office. Read the article again – it discusses a situation where a police report that clearly shows felony conduct was somehow rejected even though it was never "formally submitted" for review. How did that happen? This isn’t a matter of settling a case that had already been filed – it wasn’t filed at all and a woman lost her life because of it. The questions need to be asked, there seems to have been a change in policy in regard to domestic violence cases – did this arise because of a policy change? If so, that needs to be uncovered and corrected. If not, what did happen and how can it be prevented in the future? The truth will eventually come out. I am not ashamed of whichever of my colleagues brought this to light – that’s what we do, search for the truth. Instead, Paul Zellerbach wants to blame it being "politically motivated" and trots out his tired old story of "it’s all Rod’s fault, blah, blah, blah…" That’s what you should be ashamed of.

    However, you say you do not know Paul and "don’t care" about him. If that is true, you are being selectively ignorant about what has been going on the office since he got here. He ran his campaign on a bunch of hyperbole about how horrible Rod Pacheco was and fudged up numbers of conviction rates. Zellerbach has created a climate of fear and intimidation that, alarmingly, is much worse than what it was under Pacheco. And, astoundingly, he takes credit for clearing up court congestion when that was largely fixed before he was sworn in. His management team is made up of a bunch of retread misfit toys that have completely failed to demonstrate any kind of leadership whatsoever. How you fail to see that baffles me. Whether Mike Hestrin decides to run against Zellerbach as rumored or someone else does, something must be done. Zellerbach doesn’t have the first clue as to how to run the office – something he has demonstrated daily since he took office. The citizens of the county deserve better and they certainly would have never elected him if they had known just how awful a DA he would make.

    Don’t be ashamed, instead I challenge you to take a look around and see what is really going on in the office. If you do, I am convinced you will see the truth that it is Zellerbach you need to be concerned about, not your association.

  15. codename   June 10, 2014 at 2:08 pm

    lets talk about "dangerman" and the missing Hamilton files…mind control torture…court room tactics…rodric Anthony…a fellow traveler


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