Saturday, October 31, 2009


I am in Los Angeles where, 28 years ago, I began my legal career as a deputy city attorney for the LA City Attorney's office prosecuting misdemeanor crimes in the downtown court house on Temple Street.

After six weeks of training I was taken into a courtroom, shown where the prosecutor sits, and a pile of cases. That was my office and that was my work. My supervisor said, try them, deal them or trail them, but get rid of them. A slightly more experienced public defender was sitting at her table.
The judge came out, looked at me, the water dripping from my wet-behind-the-ears, and said, "Let's call the calendar." "People v. Doe," and said, "Status, Mr. Nava? Are the People ready to proceed?"

One blinding moment of panic and then I looked at the notes in the case that said the witnesses were present in the master calendar court and said, "The People are ready for trial, Your Honor."
Evidently this was the correct response because she smiled. "Defense?"

"Ready, Your Honor."

She looked at her clerk and said, "Let's get some jurors up here." And I was off.

I worked as a prosecutor for four years. I tried somewhere between 50 and 60 cases, most to jury, in the same building where OJ Simpson was acquitted. (One afternoon I saw an elderly, beautifully-dressed African-American couple standing outside a courtroom consoling each other -- it was the parents of the singer Marvin Gaye whose father had been charged with his homicide. )

I appeared before tough judges and affable ones, smart judges and judges who owned their appointment to political connections. I tried everything from drunk driving cases -- surprisingly complex because of the scientific evidence of blood alcohol levels -- to serious assault with deadly weapons cases the DA had kicked down to a misdemeanor because all the witnesses were gang members. I tried a child sexual abuse case with a six year old victim who endured hours of cross-examination; the jury convicted. I remember hugging one of my witnesses, a woman whose car had been stolen and who, lost her job because she kept having to come to court -- the defendant was convicted but that didn't help her. When she started crying, I didn't know what else to do but hold her. (This was in the day before there was significant assistance for crime victims.) Some of my hardest cases involved domestic violence where the victim -- a wife or girlfriend -- recanted and refused to testify. One woman told me that if her husband went to jail, there would no one to support her and her children.

Those four years were the most exciting ones of my career and, even with the heartbreak stories and the stresses of trial, the most fun. I can't wait to get back to a criminal courtroom, my ears considerably drier, as a judge.

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