Gary Delsohn spends a year inside the Sacramento County district attorney’s office
In Gary Delsohn’s new book, we see the world through the eyes of a Sacramento County district attorney: Sheriff Lou Blanas is obsessed with his media image. Defense attorneys are self-righteous, incompetent fools. And jail inmates who kill themselves are doing the public a favor.
Those are just some of the viewpoints expressed in Sacramento Bee reporter Delsohn’s The Prosecutors: A Year in the Life of a District Attorney’s Office, which follows Sacramento’s top homicide prosecutors through some of their toughest cases.
But more important than the personalities and worldviews of local district attorneys (DAs) are a trove of court dramas Delsohn found that had been virtually untold in the local press.
When Delsohn set out to write his first book, he knew only that he wanted to “get inside something” in a way most journalists can’t.
“The best of us, under the best of circumstances, are [still] outsiders,” Delsohn explained. “We rely on people to call us up and tell us things.”
To become an insider, Delsohn wrangled permission from District Attorney Jan Scully to be a fly on the wall inside her department for a year, during which he took a leave of absence from his job at the Bee.
It was a hell of a year.
In 2001, under intense pressure from the public and the media, the DA reopened the case of Myrna Opsahl, slain by members of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) in 1975. In the summer of 2001, Ukrainian immigrant Nikolay Soltys went on a murderous rampage in which he killed seven family members, including his own 3-year-old son. Shortly thereafter, a copycat killer named Joseph Ferguson would go on his own murder spree, attempting to break Soltys’ record, and grab some headlines of his own before taking his own life. But within two days, Ferguson’s 15 minutes of infamy would be stolen away by a bunch of amateur pilots with box knives from Saudi Arabia who managed to fly jets into the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
It was also a year of much-quieter but no-less-dramatic stories, such as the three-defendant, three-jury trial of the men who killed Jason Frost during a botched robbery at the Bread Store downtown; and the story of diet doctor Dennis Tison, who threw his own 14-month-old daughter from a second-story window in a drunken rage. And then there was the man who killed his girlfriend and tried to make it look like she had hung herself. He could have gotten away with the murder, had he not videotaped himself committing it.
“I think the courthouse is the most interesting building in town. In some ways, it’s much more interesting than the state Capitol,” Delsohn said. He now works as the Bee’s Capitol reporter. “It’s a lot more real. There’s so much pain and drama. I just wanted to open it up a little bit for people.”
In the process, he opened the prosecutors themselves up a bit, showing a side that DAs hide from the media.
“I was fascinated. Who are these people who can sit at lunch eating a tuna-fish sandwich and pass around the most gruesome crime-scene photos and talk about them the way you and I would read a magazine at lunch?”
Delsohn concludes that they are driven, “well-meaning people who are doing the best they can under difficult circumstances.”
But those circumstances can take their toll. Delsohn sometimes portrays the prosecutors as hardened, even damaged, by their grisly work. The official response from the DA’s office is that Scully has “no regrets” about letting Delsohn write the book, but Delsohn said some inside Scully’s office resented their presentation as cavalier, even callous, in the face of so much misery.
For example, this chilling passage follows the account of accused mass murderer Soltys’ suicide in jail.
“Over the next few months, the jail would have a suicide epidemic, averaging one a month for the first seven months of 2002. It was an embarrassment to the sheriff’s department, which runs the jail, but no one at the district attorney’s office—or the sheriff’s department for that matter—shed any tears about an inmate’s death. It just meant one less case to worry about.”
It is also during the account of the Soltys case that the reader gets a taste of the antagonism that occasionally arises between the DA and Blanas.
There is one long, oddly humorous passage during which a group of DAs mock the sheriff’s press conference following Soltys’ capture. In the book, sheriff’s deputies have transferred Soltys back and forth between cars several times, apparently for the benefit of the television cameras. The DAs watch this apparent showboating with amusement.
“A TV reporter asks the sheriff if he has anything to say now that the long Sacramento nightmare is finally over,” Delsohn writes.
“'A vote for me,’” cracks one attorney when Blanas appears on the screen, “'is a vote for safety.’”
“It’s about media market share,” Delsohn explained. “It’s always a source of tension between the two departments,” and it’s a recurring frustration for Scully. “It’s hard to compete with people who wear uniforms and arrest people, and someone who is as naturally inclined to work the press as Blanas is.”
(The sheriff’s department did not return calls for comment for this story.)
Even with these insights into interdepartmental politics, the book is more true-crime novel than exposé. The closest thing to a bombshell is Delsohn’s account of a scandal in the public defender’s office involving a defense attorney who allegedly was having a romantic affair with a Sacramento jail inmate accused of a brutal murder. According to the book, the pair actually engaged in phone sex, even though both were surely aware that phone calls in and out of the jail are recorded by sheriff’s deputies.
Delsohn intentionally did not ask the defense attorney, who has since left the department, for her side of the story. That angered some public defenders, such as Tommy Clinkenbeard, a personal friend of the attorney: “He got all that information from the cops. Some of it was just bullshit.”
The story, of course, only reinforces Delsohn’s account of the way the DAs look down their noses at defense attorneys and consider them incompetent fools. Not surprisingly, some defense attorneys have bristled at the book. “I’d like to see a book about a year in the life of a defense attorney who has to deal with these assholes,” Clinkenbeard said.
Delsohn acknowledges that the book is written from a single perspective, and, in fact, he asked to do a book from inside the public defender’s office. He was turned down, however, because such an account could violate the privacy of defendants.
Perhaps the most interesting case in the book is that of Opsahl’s murder and the long-awaited arrest and prosecution of five former members of the 1970s guerilla organization the SLA.
Following the arrest of SLA fugitive Sara Jane Olson in Minnesota in 1999 and her trial in Los Angeles for attempting to blow up police cars with pipe bombs, the Sacramento district attorney came under enormous pressure to reopen the Opsahl case, in which Olson long had been a suspect. But Scully and her chief homicide prosecutor, John O’Mara, initially resisted filing charges against the suspects, some 27 years after the murder.
This brought a torrent of criticism from the victim’s family, the press and even local sheriff’s detectives. Unlike the rest of the world, Delsohn saw the prosecutors’ reaction to the case from the inside.
“Everybody was ganging up on them: the sheriffs, the media, the L.A. prosecutors. They were really resentful about it,” Delsohn explained.
Delsohn thinks Scully and O’Mara could have saved themselves some grief by better explaining the reasons for their trepidation. The case was decades old and had been mishandled by previous DAs and investigators. “The truth is the whole thing was a disaster from day one, from the day of the crime. The sheriffs fucked it up. The FBI fucked it up,” Delsohn said.
No one inside the DA’s office was sure it could be won, and even if it could, it was assumed that a trial would take years. That’s not the way it turned out, of course, because Olson and her comrades pleaded guilty.
Perhaps the most valuable part of being an insider for a year was that Delsohn saw the prosecutors’ thought processes in a way that the press on the outside simply could not.
“They know they could be criticized for the way they handled the case. But you have to know the reasons for the decisions they made,” said Delsohn. “Nobody has really written about that before.”