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.