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Crime and Punishment in Sacramento: A Review of The Prosecutors

By Seth Stern

Friday, Sep 12, 2003
Gary Delsohn, The Prosecutors (Dutton 2003)

Art Lane slipped a noose around his girlfriend's neck before recording her death on video. For years, Lane got away with the murder by claiming she committed suicide. Then a copy of the tape landed in the lap of a Sacramento county prosecutor.

Even the most jaded veterans in the county district attorney's office were horrified by the tape - yet simultaneously, they were thrilled. As journalist Gary Delsohn discovered during a year trailing the city's district attorneys, that's the kind of evidence Sacramento prosecutors call a "dead bang winner."

Unfortunately for prosecutors, few cases are that easy. And unfortunately for Delsohn, few of the prosecutions he observed during his year behind the scenes are - when retold in his book The Prosecutors - that engrossing.

Delsohn took a risk when, in 2001, he exchanged his Sacramento Bee press pass for the role of quiet court observer. He bet that California's modest-sized capital city would produce enough juicy material to fill an entire book. Unfortunately, the smart money was elsewhere.

The result is that The Prosecutors can, at times, be plodding. It is also virtually uniformly one-sided in its portrayal of prosecutors who are its subjects. In Delsohn's version of reality, they are always sympathetic - triumphing against obstacles such as detectives' lapses and defense attorneys' machinations.

Delsohn's glasses become especially rose-colored when he writes about John O'Mara, Sacramento's macho, foul-mouthed chief of homicide and major crime prosecutions. O'Mara would earn more than a corporate law firm partner if he got paid by the curse. Yet he also has a softer side: He launches an essay contest to decide who will prosecute a high profile case, and retreats to his ranch to spend solitary weekends alone with his animals.

In his portraits of O'Mara and others, Delsohn relies excessively on obscenities and simplistic language, in an attempt to infuse the book with some grit. Instead, what should have been entirely a serious, analytical work winds up reading, at points, like a cheap dime store detective novel in which the defendants are "bad guys" and a prosecutor who settles too often has "no balls." Next time, Delsohn should leave the cursing to the pros - like O'Mara himself.

Cases that Make Headlines Don't Always Make Excellent Reading

Of course, it's hard not to like O'Mara given that he's contrast with a cellblock full of rogues. The defendants he prosecutes, a surprising number of whom make national headlines, are depicted by Delsohn, at least, as an ugly bunch.

There's Nikolay Soltys, the Ukrainian immigrant security guard who stabbed to death six relatives - including his pregnant wife and their three-year-old son. Prosecutors don't shed many tears when he avoids trial by killing himself.

Another recurring character is Emily Harris, a Symbionese-Liberation-Army-revolutionary-turned-corporate-consultant. Harris is alleged to have been implicated in a 1975 bank robbery that left a customer dead. O'Mara struggles over whether to file charges.

Surprisingly, less high profile cases in this book prove more compelling than these headline-makers. The scene in which detectives confront Mr. Lane with his damning cinematography is priceless.

The Case That Is The Book's Centerpiece Is Disappointingly Dull

But the case around which Delsohn chose to build the book, is far less absorbing than these dramatic stories. Sadly, it's an all too familiar scenario: The senseless murder of an innocent employee caught up in a robbery.

The prosecution, too, is all too familiar. There are four woeful, and practically indistinguishable defendants. The case drags on for months.(Only the public defender's personal indiscretions provide some relief: She's caught having phone sex with her incarcerated clients, the details of which Delsohn is happy to provide.)

Still, buried within this dull trial are insightful nuggets about the inner workings of a district attorney's office. You see the pressures applied by elected officials, victims' families, and police. You can also watch how prosecutors strategize, even during interrogations - thinking ahead to potential defense objections that could be raised when the witness later testifies at trial.

You'll marvel at the suspects' stupidity. With so many crime shows on television, you'd think real life defendants would have learned by now never to show up for an interview without a lawyer. When will they ever learn that the prosecutor - no matter how kind and sympathetic he or she may seem - is not your friend in an interrogation room?

In the course of his account, Delsohn provides a helpful reminder about just how rare trials are these days. As many as eighty five percent of the 36,000 felonies and misdemeanors charged each year by the Sacramento DA's office wind up being settled with a plea agreement before trial.

Delsohn also offers unique insights into how prosecutors exercise their tremendous discretion - particularly their discretion as to who will face a possible death sentence. Despite public claims about careful group deliberation, the unfortunate reality is that, in the case Delsohn depicts, the decision whether to seek the death penalty was based largely on one prosecutor's instincts.

In the end, it's not necessarily Delsohn's fault that The Prosecutors isn't all high drama. After all, he didn't cherry-pick the most compelling cases - as James Stewart did in his 1987 book of the same name, which focuses on some of the Eighties' most high profile white collar prosecutions. And there's something to be said for not picking the most compelling cases, but rather the most typical, if one wants readers to get insight as to how a prosecutor's office really works. In this case, however, the typical case did not offer enough drama to make the book a compelling read.

Seth Stern is a staff writer for The Christian Science Monitor and a graduate of Harvard Law School.

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