Posted in grit and glitter, Prosecutor's Corner, Uncategorized

#3 The Jury Trial Where I Learn About Constructive Criticism

Remember when I told that DUI’s are where new criminal prosecutors often cut their teeth on jury trials?

Jury trial #3 involved a DUI where the defendant had been pulled over for speeding, he exhibited routine objective signs of intoxication, admitted to having 1 beer with dinner, and had marginal success on the field sobriety tests administered to him. His BAC (Blood Alcohol Content) was .12% approximately 15 minutes after driving.

Pretty basic fact pattern right? Well, the lesson here isn’t in the guilty verdict. In fact, it never really is. The mistrials and not guity verdicts are where I’ve learned the most. However, this particular case was an eye opener for me despite the successful outcome.

Sometimes when you see the same thing over and over again, like in an assignment like DUI’s you forget that while some of the facts are similar, every single case is different. This is because fundamentally the purpose of a jury trial is to provide the defendant with their constitutional right to have the issue of guilt decided by a jury of their peers. It’s unique because it affects them on an individual and personal level.

Victims also have a constitutional right to be present at all court hearings and have their opinions, their suffering, and their loss taken into account at sentencing. It’s the human factor that makes each trial separately important, because while it may be similar in nature to other criminal events, its important and life altering for the victims of the crime and the defendant who stands accused.

The investigating officer in this case loved DUI’s because of the formulaic structure, just like I love jury trials involving DUI because of the relatively straight forward presentation of evidence. The pattern provides guidance, but sometimes that structure can become commonplace.

After the verdict the majority of the jury held back so that they could meet with meet with me and the defense attorney. They wanted to provide specific feedback on this very issue. While it was directed at the officer who investigated the DUI, I felt that it rang true in DUI trials as well. The members of the jury felt that the words used to describe the objective signs and symptoms had simply become routine descriptors in our officer’s investigations and counseled that they would like him to pay attention to his word choice in the future. For example, the officer in this case testified to seeing “slow, thick, and slurred speech” when in reality, the body camera footage showed “slight slurring” of speech. They specifically said that the officer in this case sounded like he was talking about ANY DUI rather than this SPECIFIC DUI.

The officer and I worked together after receiving the feedback to figure out ways to present future DUI’s without sounding generic. We decided that more focus on the word choice for both defendant’s physical manifestations of impairment, as well as a slower breakdown of the field sobriety tests (i.e. why they were used and what specifically the defendant did during them that caused him to pass/fail). Body cameras were relatively new in this area around the time and so we discussed using that tool to review the investigation completed when drafting the final report.

The constructive criticism the jury provided in this case has stuck with me. It is a reminder of the importance of criminal prosecution. We must balance the rights of the accused, the rights of the victim, as well as the safety of the public in every single case. And while the facts may be routine, this duty is far from it; which is why every jury trial is unique and important, no matter what the crime may be.

Posted in grit and glitter, Prosecutor's Corner, Uncategorized

#2 The Jury Trial Involving The No Drive Defense

Driving under the influence is one of the most common jury trials to cut your teeth on as a new prosecutor. I got my chance my second trial in. The case essentially revolved around the discovery of an abandoned vehicle in the roadway which was had major damage to the driver’s side of the vehicle, it was missing a tire, and had been driven quite a distance on three wheels. The defendant was located approximatley 30 feet away lying down behind a hill. Defendant admitted to drinking (he was a .20% BAC) but not to driving. Gouge marks in the road showed that the vehicle had crossed double yellow lines and hit a guard rail on the opposite side of traffic; the vehicle had been driven until it no longer functioned. Witnesses put the defendant, and his vehicle, at King’s Tavern hours prior to the collision. Oh and defendant was on probation for a DUI at the time of this offense with terms that included no drinking and no driving with any amount of alcohol in the system. Sound’s solid right?

Not so much.

Defendant took the stand and claimed “his friend” was the one driving the vehicle and that “his friend” had taken off after the vehicle was disabled. Names will not be used here, but the very experienced defense attorney I was up against provided a name, and conveniently, a death certificate, showing that the friend had died approximately 2 months after the collision. Additionally, while we had witnesses from the bar telling us defendant had arrived in the vehicle alone and had been drinking, no one actually saw the defendant leave.

It was a “no drive defense” and a good one. We ended up with a hung jury in this case, and not a good split. 11 jurors for not guilty and 1 for guilt. The issue being that we just could not show beyond a reasonable doubt that defendant’s story of a friend driver was not a reasonable explanation of the facts as they were. No one observed the collision. The vehicle was discovered by law enforcement during routine patrol. And while the vehicle was associated with the defendant, no one could tell the jury he was the one driving it away from the bar that night. And let’s not forget, the claimed was dead. Lastly, the height and weight of the friend and our defendant were such that we couldn’t use the positioning of the driver’s side seat to make any kind of factual argument as to who the driver was.

One of the most frustrating things about this particular case for me is that in criminal law we have a reciprocal rule of discovery. Both sides are required to give over evidence they intend to use at trial. Prosecutors have an additional burden to turn over all exculpatory evidence. I’m certain that had the defense attorney provided information about the “friend,” driver in advance this case would have been reevaluated prior to trial to determine whether or not we should proceed. Instead, we did it after the court declared a mistrial. We determined that a second jury trial would not acheive a different result, after recontacting the bar and the patron witnesses just to make sure they didn’t have any additionaly information about the “friend” and his whereabouts that night.

One of the things we do as prosecutors when a case ends in a mistrial or a not guilty is to attempt to reach out to the jurors to find out what evidence they were looking for, to see if there were credibility issues with our witnesses, and to see which elements of a particular crime was difficult for them with our presentation of the evidence. This part of my job has helped me learn what jurors are looking for in cases such as this, where the defendant claims he wasn’t driving and in others. I have modified my presentation in future cases, as well as my charging decisions based on these difficult conversations.

Justice is sometimes served by not proceeding on a case when the outcome isn’t going to change. A significant amount of public resources go into every single jury trial, no matter the charge. We ask the public to take time out of their lives to perform one of the most basic, and important civic duties we have. Prosecutors are always balancing this public interest in every decision they make and jury trial #2 taught me that this consideration never goes away, even if you have already completed a jury trial in the matter.

Posted in grit and glitter, Lifestyle, Prosecutor's Corner, Uncategorized

#1 The One in Which I Had my First Jury Trial

The year was 2012. I had been a lawyer for about 6 years in the civil sector with nary a jury trial to my name. You see, what they don’t tell you in law school, that jury trials in the civil sector are expensive, which means working for a small boutique law firm in rural Northern California gives you zero opportunites to have a trial go out.

After Maizy was born I set out on my own, opened my own practice and worked next to my family and their shirt shop they had owned my entire life…but that it a story for another day. Let’s just say that it got to a point where I had to decide whether to hire a legal secretary and work full time or pursue my dream of working in criminal prosecution. Criminal prosecution won that battle and my first jury trial came about 8 months later.

As a new prosecutor I was assigned to work in the misdemeanor division. This is a fast paced part of the DA’s office. So many cases come through any misdemeanor prosecutor’s door on any given day and this is where you are expected to cut your teeth on jury trials. On this particular ocassion the Court had become disillussioned with the number of cases pending trials and set multiple defendants with multiple cases for the same jury trial dates. Something was bound to get out.

I spent the weekend (the cases were confirmed Friday morning for a Monday jury trial) prepping ALL of my cases. And there was a stack of them. 3 defendants in total. 2 each had 1 case a piece and the final defendant had 3 cases. At the very bottom of the stack was a relatively simple case of driving on a suspended license. It was the very last in terms of priority and unlikely to confirm, or so we thought.

Monday morning came around and I watched as the cases were called widdling down to the very last one. One defendant failed to show up. One pled. One case had a necessary witness that was unavailable. And so we had it. My first jury trial was going to be Driving Under a Suspended License.

It was relatively straight forward. The case boiled down to an officer observing the defendant driving. Based on prior contacts the officer knew the defendant’s license was suspended. The defendant was contacted in the parking lot where he had parked and admitted his conduct. Proof of the suspension came from certified DMV documents that showed proof of notification of the suspension was received. To add to the mix, defendant opted to testify on his own behalf in the trial and TOLD THE JURY HE HAD BEEN DRIVING. A guilty verdict was received.

When the defendant tells you he did something, you beleive it.

One of the most poignant traditions we have at the DA’s office is a tie-cutting ceremony which occurs the first time you receive a guilty verdict on a trial. My scarf (no ties were worn by me) was off of the burgandy blouse I had worn in trial. It hangs in a case with my DDA counterparts as evidence of a job well done.

Posted in family and home, Lifestyle, My Why, Travel Log

Going to the Snow

Going to the Snow

How our day trip to Donner Memorial Park reminded us to stay resiliant.

Miles, my 17 year old, pointed out to me that only in California do we say things such as, “going to the snow.” The snow is not so much a place as it is a weather condition, but despite that, in California we “go to the snow.” Growing up this phrase meant my family was going to pack up in our mini-van and drive up the mountain. Usually it was a couple of hours until we found a spot, conviently located close to the side of the road. Then we would hop out of the car to go sledding, make a snowman, and then go home. Say what you will about my home-state, the ability to drive equal distance to the snow or the beach will always be one of the main reasons I continue to reside here.

One such trip to the snow as a child occurred in the late-80’s, early 90’s, when my family spent the day at Donner Memorial State Park. Located off of Interstate 80, this park has a small museum and statue memorializing the fate of the Donner party, who got snowed in at this particular location while trying to migrate to the west. They got stuck, people died, and some of those people got eaten. 7th grade me, along with my 3 brothers, made LOTS of jokes while we were at the location. But the magnitude of this event has always stuck with me. Especially when you take into account the fact that the memorial statue is built to represent the height of the snow these pioneers were stuck in. It’s leaves you awestuck at the fierceness of nature and at the resiliance of humans when faced with a seamingly impossible task. 22 feet of snow stopped those pioneers in their tracks. And still, with the help of others, they made into the North Valley of California. Not how they had planned, but they persisted.

The Miller’s at Donner Memorial in 2021

The Nelson's at Donner Memorial in the late 80's early 90's

So, when my kids asked to go to the snow a couple of weeks ago, this was the obvious choice. It took us just a couple of hours to reach the park, which was teaming with people in the parking lot, but which was spacious enough to let us all comply with social distancing guidelines. The snow there on this day, wasn’t as tall as the statue, in fact it was only about a foot or two deep, but it was enough ot make some snowballs and have a couple failed attempts at snow angels. Most important, it got us out of the house for awhile. With all that 2020 had thrown at us, any excuse to get out into nature is a welcome excuse.

As soon as we got out of the car I was hit with the cold-clean fresh air; such a welcome change from the indoors. I was instantly relaxed. The kids too seemed to relax just by the mere fact that they were outside. We walked over to the monument and spent just about an hour in the snow. We tried our hardest to make snow-balls, snow-angels, snow-anything really. The absurdity of chunking out ice and then throwing rock hard bits at one another had us all laughing out loud.

Unfortunately, the snow was not fresh and there was far-less than 22 feet of it. We really didn’t mind the lack of resources. The important thing was we were outside and we were making do with the circumstances as they were dealt us. With everything my kids and husband have had to deal with over the last year, quaratine, staying at home, grief over the life we used to live, my kids rarely get the chance to just be kids anymore. And with Miles about to go on to college, he rarely lets himself act his age. For just a little bit, my kids and husband spent time just being themselves without a worry for all of those problems waiting for them once we returned.

Going home, we felt a bit lighter, refreshed by the outdoors, and grateful that we live in a place where such day-trips are possible. One thing is for certain, in 2021 I am grateful for the ability to “go to” just about anywhere. Getting there may not be what we planned, but we’ve made it ours just the same.

Looking for more informaiton on Donner Memorial Park? Here is the link to the website: Donner Memorial Park

Posted in family and home, Lifestyle, Motivation, Travel Log

Geneva: Who knew traveling and dining in the City could give us the best souvenir we could ever imagine?

Night or day, transportation and food in Geneva did not disappoint.
While it was easy, it was still COLD.
After all, we were in Geneva in the winter!

In preparing for my family’s trip to Geneva, one of the things I repeatedly came across was how expensive the city was. And really, the cost of food was a bit of a shock; however, it was worth it. Oh. So. Worth. It.

Perhaps to offset that, Geneva provides some of the most efficient and wide-spread public transportation I have ever experienced. Now don’t get me wrong, I live in a small town in Northern California where public transportation isn’t really a thing. But even with my relatively limited experiences with big-city transport (think San Francisco, Boston, Chicago), I was impressed.

As an added bonus, most hotels in Geneva, including ours, provided public transportation passes to their guests during the duration of your stay. This was especially important to us as we were technically staying outside of Geneva proper, in the smaller township of Meryn. Daily trips into the city only took us about 20 minutes, or perhaps a little longer if we were going outside the main area of the city.

The transportation system was entirely in French, however, the lines running in and out of the city on both the trams and buses were super easy to understand…and since I’m a bit of a Type A personality, Google Maps also kept us on track.

Once inside the main part of the City, the Jet D’Eau (or “Old Spouty”) really acted as a gauge for where we were. This fountain, located in Lake Leman, started out as a pressure release valve for the City’s water system. Now, it is a giant symbol of Geneva proper and can be seen throughout the entire city for the most part. We had fun trying to find it where ever we were and often used it to walk back to the tram station we used most often called “Bel Air.”

Jet D’Eau in the morning

One of our favorite thing to do as a family was to meet up with Jason after he was done with work to eat a meal at a cafe or restaurant. We would often pick a small eatery close to where-ever the kids and I had been that day and Jason would hop on the tram to meet us.

A word of caution, food is on a strict schedule in Geneva.

Fondue on our final night

Breakfast is typically open from 7am to about 9am

Lunch from 12pm to about 2:30pm

One of our favorite cafes had a
rabbit theme. How could you
resist taking photos?

Dinner starts at 6pm and goes until about 2am

These were not negotiable. So we learned rather quickly to time our meals to the schedule of the restaurants.

However, dining in Geneva was so much different than what my family typically experiences. Usually we eat a meal in 20 minutes to 45 minutes at a restaurant. In Geneva we were expected to be there at least an hour or two. I got the impression that we could have stayed for 3 hours and still have been fine. And we would always have to ask for the bill; once you were there to eat, you were there for the duration. My family really embraced this style of eating. In fact, now that we are home, the kids have asked for us to have a longer meal once a month so we can spend some time at the table “like Geneva” and just catch up with one another.

These two aspects of any city are essential to having a smooth and pleasant vacation and my family was more than pleasantly surprised by both. More importantly, these practical and necessary parts of our trip gave us one of the most valuable things we brought home. A genuine understanding of why slow family meals are important; a cultural insight that I am so glad we have brought home to our little family.

Posted in family and home, Lifestyle, Travel Log

Geneva: History Comes to Life with La Escalade

Here we are in front of Jet D’eau (or “Old Spouty” as we came to call him throughout the week). This truly is a symbol of Geneva. Throughout the week we used it to get our bearings and to remind us of what an amazing adventure we were on.

Sometimes an opportunity comes along you just cannot refuse. This happened to my family in December when my husband was asked to teach for a week in Geneva. We jumped on the opportunity to take the kids; even though this was definitely not a trip we had planned for at all. Geneva has never been on my radar as somewhere we would go independent of a larger trip to Switzerland. Finances were also a concern given the fact that we had done zero planning in advance for this trip-which was scheduled approximately 4 weeks before we left.

In fact, immediately I was faced with the choice: Do we do an in depth week in the city or do we tackle a more broader trip with the kids (and without my husband)? I knew nothing about Geneva, other than it housed the United Nations AND that it was the hub of Swiss banking. However, given time constraints and the fact that we did want to actually hang out with Jason after he was done teaching for the day, we opted to dig deep into the city of Geneva.

I am SO glad that we did!

First of all, every year Geneva celebrates in its Old Town the Fete De La Escalade, which commemorates the City’s victory over a Paris invasion in 1608. This festival just so happened to be the weekend we arrived. It involved patrols of the Old Town by soldiers in period clothing (a portion of Geneva that is filled with cobblestone and notably, St. Peter’s Cathedral), demonstrations of drums, sword fighting, mulled wine and sausages, a SECRET TUNNEL only opened one weekend a year, and ends with a giant bonfire at the base of St. Peters. Approximately 600 volunteers march through the city to ignite the fire and celebrate their continued independence.

Oh and let’s not forget the chocolate sculpted cauldrons with sculpted candy vegetables that you break open with a sword in celebration! We got in on the action ourselves by buying a small pot and breaking it open with Maizy’s Swiss Army Knife!

The City was full of Chocolate Shops selling these beauties! We opted to get our’s at the convenience store call Migros. It quickly became one of our favorite places to stop and get a snack.

I would say one of the highlights of the festival was the free access to the bell towers in St. Peter’s Cathedral. If you arrived after 2pm you were given access to all three. This involved what seemed like a never ending ascension into the towers by winding cobblestone and rock stairways. There were three separate towers: The original bell tower (which was complete with hand rung bells), the mechanical tower, and the watch tower.

We stopped for a photo during our never ending climb.

St. Peter’s Cathedral served as a lookout for invaders and was continuously manned until after the end of WW1. The bell in that tower was used to warn the city about fire and invasion up until that time.

What an experience we had being thrown into the heart of this truly Genevian celebration. Geneva is primarily a French speaking town; although we were able to communicate just fine with our limited French ability (think Google translate) because most people understood and spoke English as well. Regardless, our experience with the festival was truly magical. We felt like we got to see a glimpse into a side of the City not available any other time of the year.