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Santa Clara County DA’s Tenure Plagued by Controversy

By Marie Baca | 12 Nov 2009

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By Marie C. Baca

SAN JOSE—Five months after Dolores Carr became Santa Clara County’s first female district attorney, she reviewed the case that would establish her as one of the South Bay’s most controversial public figures.

It was March 2007, and a 17-year-old girl was allegedly gang-raped by members of the De Anza College baseball team in front of several eyewitnesses. Citing a lack of evidence, Carr chose not to charge anyone in connection with the crime, and issued a brief statement announcing her decision.

Outraged citizens responded by staging protests in front of Carr’s office. Although the state attorney general eventually reviewed the case and concurred with the decision not to press charges, local newspapers were filled with editorials denouncing Carr’s lack of sensitivity in handling the matter.

The incident is one of several controversies that have plagued the 56-year-old DA’s tenure, controversies that are being closely scrutinized as she launches her 2010 re-election campaign.

While the race is still in its infancy—homicide prosecutor Jeff Rosen announced his candidacy on November 3—it appears likely that the result will hinge on Carr’s ability to transcend her reputation as a polarizing figure.

“I am first and foremost a public servant responsible for the prosecution of crimes,” said Carr in an interview. “When I’m interviewed by people who aren’t skilled, who aren’t lawyers, and who don’t understand the nuances of what I do, it’s a very incomplete picture that gets put out there.”

But even those individuals who work directly with Carr possess widely different opinions of her work as DA. One city employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press said that Carr created a “culture of fear” within the office.

“She’s both very powerful and very vindictive,” the this person said. “People are afraid to question what she does because they’re worried about what she’ll do.”

Supervising Deputy DA Javier Alcala saw the situation differently.
“She has a very clear vision of the office, of the hierarchy that should be in place,” said Alcala. “But she’s also the type of person who always wants to know how you’re doing, and I think that works very well.”

Carr’s commitment to structure is apparently in nearly everything she does. She’s a compulsive list-maker. While she relies heavily on her Blackberry—“Crackberry,” she calls it—she doesn’t consider herself dependent on technology to keep organized.

Her schedule is packed but also predictable. She wakes up at 5:45 each morning and heads to the gym, where she completes 45 minutes of a cardio workout while listening to a mix of rock, rap, and salsa music on her iPod.

She’s in the office by 7 a.m. for a full day of meetings and appointments scheduled by her administrative assistant. In total, Carr is responsible for overseeing 160 lawyers and reviewing 45,000 cases each year.

Her predecessor, George Kennedy, did not have an official spokesperson, but Carr hired two communication officers to “put out more information” on behalf of the district attorney’s office. Two sources inside Carr’s office said that she imposed a strict rule forbidding attorneys to speak with the press unless the go through the communication officers first.

Carr also hired an ethics advisor, an action that was scrutinized as she weathered what is perhaps the most damaging controversy yet: an undisclosed conflict of interest in the murder trial of slain San Jose shopkeeper Vahid Hosseini, who was killed in May 2008.

According to an investigation by the San Jose Mercury News, the victim’s family paid Carr’s husband, former police lieutenant John Carr, $14,000 to investigate allegations of lax security at the bank where Hosseini was shot. Carr may have also allowed her husband to overhear a confidential discussion about a wiretap in the case.

After the conflict of interest was discovered by Rosen, the prosecutor in the case, in July, Chief Assistant DA Marc Buller recused the entire office from the case and referred it to the State Attorney General, where it has yet to go to trial. The Carrs have since returned the money to the victim’s family.

In her response to the discussion surrounding her ethics and judgment in the Hosseini case, Carr acknowledged that she made mistakes but said she did not regret her actions.

“I’m not perfect, but I’m comfortable with the decisions I’ve made,” she said.

The question is whether or not Santa Clara County voters feel comfortable enough with Carr‘s decisions to support her at the polls next year. The race is already heating up, with Rosen criticizing Carr’s ethics and judgment in a speech announcing his candidacy. Carr fired back in a press release, noting that a court found Rosen guilty of prosecutorial misconduct in a 2001 case.

Carr said that she treats everyone she works with, including Rosen, as a professional, and that navigating complicated political dynamics is simply part of her position.

“Whenever the job gets difficult, I just remember Teddy Roosevelt saying that it’s not the critic that counts, but the person who’s in the arena,” she said.

Image courtesy PRx Inc/Daniel Garza via Flickr.

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