Spotlight On...
March-April 2010

What’s the hardest lesson you’ve learned as a prosecutor?

Alexis Hernandez, Assistant Criminal ­District Attorney in Dallas County

I’m still learning that I’m not the investigator and I’m not the trial prosecutor (I’m the appellate prosecutor), and they do their best with what time and resources they have. Sometimes the record I receive is what it is and I just have to work with what I have.

One case involved a robbery. The trial prosecutor was excellent at setting up the record and referencing detail upon detail with the exhibits. The record was nearly perfect. But had he asked a single question of a particular State’s witness regarding an element of the crime, I would not have had to link logic chain upon logic chain of facts together for several pages in one of my briefs. Although tedious, doing so let me perform some of my better advocacy and become creative with seemingly disparate facts.

I often think of my former life where I had been studying to go into clinical psychology. I had performed internships dealing with mental health issues from both a policy’s perspective and from a clinician’s point of view. Now, being on the prosecutor’s side of the desk, it is sometimes difficult to accept that people make choices that ultimately take away another person’s life, innocence, or personal security. At the same time, I also see defendants who gave up on themselves (or their support systems gave up on them) before they reached the judicial system. It is a reminder that the penal system is but one part that holds people accountable for their actions; human relationships are another part. I can’t fix people’s relationships with others that may have failed along the way, but I can contribute to holding them accountable in my own personal way.

JoDee Lee Neil, Assistant Criminal ­District Attorney in Collin County

The hardest thing I’ve learned is that the unthinkable really happens.  Three years ago I would have told you that I’ve learned the most from my losses in trial, whether it be from an overruled objection, a not guilty verdict, or a piece of evidence that was not admitted. Since then, however, I’ve learned more about human nature than I ever expected to learn. Although prosecuting crimes against children proved to be a rewarding experience, it was also an eye-opening expression of the actual world where we live. I learned that not all fathers treasure their daughters, that not all mothers protect, and that to some people, a baby isn’t a precious gift. I’ve learned that cycles are difficult to break, that some people don’t care at all that they hurt other people, and that a lot of people are in so much pain.

I’ve learned that good can prevail in spite of the filthy crimes others commit and that a small voice is sometimes the loudest. Most importantly, I’ve learned that one person can make a difference in the life of someone else. It is not easy, but it is worth it.

Kim Schaefer, Assistant Criminal ­District Attorney in ­Dallas County

The hardest lesson I have learned as a prosecutor is that people often commit crimes for no reason. When I started prosecuting in 1992, I made every effort to know why a defendant did what he did so I could assess the value of the case and understand what outcome might lead to true justice. On a strictly personal level, I also wanted any knowledge that could prevent me and my loved ones from becoming the next victim.

These reasons changed as my caseload shifted. As I began to handle more violent crimes and serious felonies, I just wanted to know what would make somebody treat another human being so badly. Perhaps searching for the cause of inhumane behavior was my attempt to restore order to the world. If I could figure out why people committed crimes, it meant a remedy was right around the corner. It is a hopeful way of thinking; it helps you believe your job is more than a speed bump in the defendant’s journey toward his next offense.

Over time, however, I have learned not to struggle over “why.” I cannot fathom why fathers rape their daughters, women kill their babies, or criminals beat up and rip off old folks. I am quite certain the experts have their reasons, but I know they are not anything I would recognize as “reasonable.”

This does not mean I have lost hope. There are simply better questions to contemplate in our line of work:  How do surviving victims deal with their experience and move on with their lives? Clearly, some do it better than others, but given the ups and downs that life dishes out to all of us, I think there is a valuable lesson in pursuing an answer to that question.

Jane Starnes, Assistant District ­Attorney in Williamson County

It was November 14, 2001, just after lunch. Our receptionist rang me: “Bonnie is on the phone and she’s crying.” A feeling of dread came over me. I had met Bonnie about six months earlier. She was sexually assaulted by her psychologist, Dr. David Hamilton, during her therapy sessions. Hamilton had convinced Bonnie that she needed to “reenact her past sexual abuse” with him and did so at her home, his office, and a hotel. We had photos, recordings, and his confession. He had been indicted for sexual assault and was in jail awaiting trial. Bonnie suffered from bipolar disorder, and she had her good days and her bad days. This was obviously one of her bad days.

I picked up the phone. “Bonnie, what’s happening?” She was breathing rapidly, like a little kid who’s crying and hyperventilating. She said, “APD (Austin Police Department) is surrounding my house and I have a gun to my head. Just make sure David fries.”

I asked, “What’s happened? What’s going on?” No response, just rapid breathing. “Bonnie, please talk to me—tell me what’s going on,” I begged her.

She repeated, “Just make sure David fries.” She hung up the phone.

I called her back. She picked up the phone but said nothing. Again I pleaded with her, “Bonnie, tell me what’s going on—please talk to me.” Click. I called 911. Within minutes, I received a call from a SWAT negotiator. He said, “I understand you’ve been talking with Bonnie. We’re outside her house. Would you mind calling her back? She may not answer, but leave her a message and see if she’ll pick up the phone.”

We discussed that I would tell her that she couldn’t kill herself because Hamilton would walk. I called and got her answering machine. “Bonnie, please, please pick up the phone and talk to me. If you do this, David will walk—he’ll get away with it. Please.” No response. I called again. The negotiator had said to call over and over if I had to. I called five times, leaving the same message. Don’t do it or David will walk. I told her whatever was going on, we could fix it. No response. I called the negotiator back and asked him if I should keep calling. He said to stop. About 15 minutes later he called me. They were in her house. She was dead. She’d shot herself in the face with a shotgun.

I’d never felt like such an utter failure in my life. How could this happen? Why couldn’t I keep her on the phone and talk her off the ledge? What’s wrong with me? I shut the door to my office and cried. To know that someone reached out to me in her last desperate moments and I couldn’t fix what was hurting her was devastating. Never mind that I have absolutely no experience with this kind of thing. I’m a prosecutor. My contact with victims usually ends with hugs, maybe some tears, thanks, a photograph sent to me later, maybe an invitation to a high school graduation. It’s not supposed to end like this.

By the time her funeral came around, I was angry at Bonnie—I didn’t go to her funeral. Why did she have to call me right before she shot herself? What right did she have to rope me into her suicide? Then, of course, there was guilt about feeling angry at her. What kind of a selfish person gets mad at a severely depressed, mentally ill, traumatized woman? She had the most horrible life of anyone I’ve ever met.

Several months after Bonnie’s suicide and after Hamilton (amazingly) pled guilty to sexual assault, I had lunch with Bonnie’s last psychiatrist. I had planned to call him as a witness at Hamilton’s trial, if there had been one. He told me that Bonnie had also phoned his office that day, right around the time she called me. He was doing the same thing I was: trying to call her back and talk her off the ledge. A trained psychiatrist couldn’t convince her not to pull the trigger, either. We talked about how we both felt angry at Bonnie, and we both came to the conclusion that no one could have stopped her from committing suicide that day. Not me, not her psychiatrist, not anyone. She had made up her mind.

How many times have we, despite our high hopes for a victim’s future, found out after a case is closed that our victim became a teenage mother, drug addict, or stripper, or she started self-mutilating, or as in this case, killed herself? When we, as prosecutors, hold the power to rescue a child from an abusive home, help a crime victim heal, send someone to prison for life, and change people’s lives for better and for worse, we can and sometimes do get a bit of a hero complex. But cases like Bonnie’s remind me that we can’t fix everyone’s problems. Some people are already so damaged when we meet them that nothing we can do will save them.

Paula Rosales Aldana, Assistant Criminal ­District Attorney in ­Dallas County

The hardest lesson I had to learn as a prosecutor is to accept that sometimes I will be able to present only the best solution and not a perfect one.

When I began prosecuting in the appellate division, I personalized my cases. Much of my workload involved reasonable suspicion to detain and probable cause to arrest issues, and such cases often involve routine errors. I thought to myself, “If only an extra question had been asked or an additional fact had been articulated, then I would be able to show that the case was perfect.” That injustice might result made me feel powerless. So I believed that injustice would be prevented so long as my answers responded to every imaginable question a reviewing court might have on an issue.

Now that my practice has advanced, I have gained more confidence about what a “perfect” case actually is. The best solution is one that contains sufficient strength (but not absolute strength) to show that all elements of a crime were proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Because the best solution requires a more objective analysis, I no longer have to personalize my arguments to know that I presented a complete case.