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A Case of Rape

[whitespace] picture Broken trust: After complaining that the county prosecutor had mishandled her rape case, Valerie finally succeeded in getting a new deputy district attorney. Victim's advocates say the case reflects deep-seated problems at the department.

Michael Amsler

Four years ago, DA Mike Mullins pledged to get tough on rape. But a pending case raises doubts about that promise

By Janet Wells

A SONOMA COUNTY deputy district attorney has been removed from a rape case less than two weeks before trial in the midst of accusations from a women's advocacy group that he and his department have "willfully" mishandled domestic violence and sexual assault cases.

After more than eight months of letters and phone calls from the Women's Justice Center complaining about "lying," "demeaning" behavior and "prosecutorial misconduct" in the handling of a recent rape case, Assistant District Attorney Greg Jacobs last week abruptly removed Deputy District Attorney Brooke Halsey from the case, which was scheduled to go to trial Jan. 11 in Superior Court.

"We're happy with the results in this particular case, although it came way too late and with much pain and disruption to [the victim's] life," says Marie De Santis, director of the Women's Justice Center in Santa Rosa, a private non-profit victims' advocacy group. "While Greg Jacobs cares about and knows about violence against women, he has completely failed to monitor what is at times abusive conduct by his attorneys."

Jacobs acknowledges that removing an attorney from a case is a "serious matter," but declines to go into specifics about Halsey's handling of the case, which has been continued to March 15 with Deputy District Attorney Robert LaForge as the newly assigned prosecutor.

"After confirming how the victim felt about the case, I felt there was a strong enough concern not to force people to be together," Jacobs says. "In the meantime, I'm still looking into it as an internal matter to see if there's anything to be done further with Mr. Halsey or with anyone else. I'm taking steps to formalize a lot of procedures in our office regarding domestic violence."

Halsey, who was asked by Jacobs not to comment on the case and did not return calls, has worked in the District Attorney's Office for eight years, and has spent more than a year on the department's Domestic Violence, Adult Sexual Assault, and Child Abuse Team. "Mr. Halsey is a very dedicated attorney" who has handled "very difficult sexual assault cases," Jacobs says. "I would strongly dispute [De Santis'] characterization of his handling of the case as 'malicious.' "

Jacobs adds: "This is not the first time that a victim or a victim's advocate has been dissatisfied with the way we handled a case. Things happen. I try like heck to determine that attorneys don't do anything inappropriate or make a wrong decision. You want to avoid it, but sometimes it's unavoidable. Now we will take the case, start fresh, and do our best."

The rape victim who pushed for Halsey to be taken off her case says she is satisfied with the resolution, but "appalled" at the way the case has been handled.

"Valerie," who asked that her real name not be used to protect her three children, says she felt both demeaned and ignored by the District Attorney's Office. She received little response to letters or phone calls on behalf of her case, she claims, and had to rely on reporters or advocates for information about her case's status.

"Brooke Halsey shouldn't be within 100 yards of a rape case. Apparently he doesn't take them seriously," Valerie says. "He makes me feel that I'm the one on trial, that I'm the one who's done something wrong. I feel like if I go on the stand with him as my DA. he's not going to fight for me."

A TALL, ELEGANT 34-year-old with hazel eyes and auburn hair, Valerie has accused her brother-in-law of raping her about a year ago. Living with her mother while going through a divorce, Valerie says she endured a year of sexual assaults from her brother-in-law, who, while living in the same house, married to her sister, would sneak into her room and put his hands under her clothes.

"He would do it even when the kids were in bed with me," she says. "I told my mom, but she said it was hard to believe, that it must be the way I look, the way I act."

Valerie, a Sonoma County native, says she began barricading her door, and eventually moved out, even though she wasn't making enough money in her part-time job as a sales consultant for a home insurance company to cover her family's expenses. When her brother-in- law moved out of her mother's house, she and her kids moved back in. Within a month, her sister and brother-in-law moved back in as well.

One night, in early 1998, the three, along with Valerie's new boyfriend Jimmy, went out to hear a friend's band play at a Rohnert Park nightclub. The two couples shared a motel room. "I thought it would be safe since I was with Jimmy," Valerie says, wiping her eyes. She and Jimmy went to bed while her sister and brother-in-law stayed downstairs socializing with members of the band.

"I woke up after about two hours, and felt someone one top of me. I thought it was Jimmy. When I opened my eyes I saw it was my brother-in-law.

"I was paralyzed, in shock. I turned over and woke Jimmy up. Jimmy says, 'You just got raped. You have to call the cops,'" says Valerie, her voice breaking as she starts to cry. "I was afraid of the family politics. I was still trying to protect my sister."

After the incident, Valerie says, her brother-in-law went downstairs and "tried to tell my sister that he had mistaken me for her. There's no way. He wasn't drunk, and she weighs about 100 pounds more than me."

The police took her brother-in-law into custody, and took Valerie to the hospital for a standard rape examination. "In the middle of it my sister and mother called the hospital," Valerie says. "Instead of asking 'Are you OK?' they said, 'Why are you doing this to the family? You're destroying us. We could have handled it.'"

The family, Valerie says, has continued to back her brother-in-law.

BROOKE HALSEY was assigned to Valerie's case. Their first meeting, apparently at Halsey's insistence, was in the lobby of the District Attorney's Office, a constrained, heavily trafficked, and highly public place in the county administration building.

According to Valerie, as well as victim's advocates, Halsey tried to dissuade her from testifying, refused to bring essential testimony into the case, and told her that he wanted to "keep it short and sweet" and "get the family back on track."

"All the DA's office can do is worry about my family," Valerie says. "It's just really degrading. I almost felt victimized all over again when I got done talking with him."

Halsey also apparently tried to persuade Valerie to agree to a reduced charge against her brother-in-law of felony sexual battery. Valerie was adamant about pursuing a charge of rape.

According to De Santis, another victim's advocate heard Halsey make the sexual battery plea bargain offer in court to the defendant, who apparently declined. "[Halsey] said he hadn't made an official deal on the record, and he did," De Santis says. "He lied."

VALERIE'S CASE is just one of many mishandled by the District Attorney's Office, De Santis says, despite departmental reforms that were supposed to toughen the prosecution of sexual assault cases. "This is daily fare. This is how they dump rape cases. They isolate the victim, tell her there's no case, give a lot of legal mumbo jumbo. Rape victims are very easy to intimidate," she says.

Three years ago, in response to the murder of Maria Teresa Macias by her estranged husband, Sonoma County District Attorney Mike Mullins assigned a new chief deputy district attorney to coordinate a team to handle all cases of domestic violence, sexual assault, and child abuse. In addition, he promised that he would double the number of prosecutors assigned to such cases from two to four, and provide additional training in the proper handling of paperwork related to those cases.

For most of the past year, there have been only three district attorneys--Halsey, LaForge, and Scott Jamar--on the team. The team has been downsized because of office shortages on other criminal matters and a 25 percent decrease in the number of domestic violence cases referred to the office by law enforcement staff, Jacobs says.

Marie De Santis has a different take on the reason: "They don't care about women," she says. "[Jacobs] brags about it, but the fact is that team is so ragged that those cases get handed off all the time. What happens to the majority is that they get filed out as misdemeanors and it gets kicked off the felony team."

In late 1996, Sonoma County's Municipal Domestic Violence Court was established to handle all misdemeanor domestic violence cases after the state eliminated deferment programs. The District Attorney's Office handles only felony domestic violence cases.

Jacobs disputes the idea that cases are wantonly dumped onto Domestic Violence Court to get them off his office's agenda. In a criminal charge, the law has provided the option of a "wobbler"--filing a felony or a misdemeanor, depending on the evidence and circumstances. Says Jacobs: "When we pick a case to go to Superior Court, we try to pick a case where the facts provide persuasive evidence. To hope for a felony conviction is not ethical for a district attorney.

"If you think you can prove the case, that's when you go for it."

And Domestic Violence Court--where there is a 74 percent conviction rate--is no picnic, Jacobs says. "You've got a guy who's immediately prosecuted, Polaroids taken by law enforcement laid on him, two domestic violence counselors contacting the victim by phone and giving reports to the judge," he explains.

"The probation department investigates the guy for his record and reports to court as well. The judge has all this a few days after it happened, and there's a lot of pressure [for the defendant] to plead guilty."

Once the defendant is convicted, he must be tested regularly for alcohol or drugs and attend a mandatory 52-week batterers' program. "Now, with rigorous sentencing in Domestic Violence Court, they are getting as stiff a punishment as they might get in Superior Court," Jacobs says.

What happens to cases once charges have been filed isn't the only issue, says De Santis. Another is the numerous cases that are never prosecuted.

During 1998, the District Attorney's Office received an average of about 228 domestic violence cases a month referred by local and county law enforcement, Jacobs says. The average number of misdemeanor charges filed was 88 a month, with another 15 felony charges each month. The number of cases that resulted in formal charges decreased from 56 percent in 1997 to 45 percent in 1998, according to Jacobs.

In addition, in 1998 an average of six adult sexual assault cases were referred each month, with charges filed in about half of the cases.

So what happens to all of the cases that are dropped before they get out of the District Attorney's Office? "They have broad discretionary powers," De Santis says. "They can look at the penal code and treat it like a menu in terms of which crimes to prosecute. They have no legal obligation to try a rape case or an auto theft. And they don't have to answer why.

"When they dump a rape case, they dump a lot of work," she adds. "When you do a drug felony all you need is a baggie full of stuff and a police officer's statement--and, boom, a felony conviction. Easy. When you do a rape case, you have to make a relationship with the victim, you have to investigate, you have to talk to a lot of human beings about very sensitive subjects and talk to very upset women and children.

"They can't handle it."

JACOBS, a 24-year veteran of the District Attorney's Office, vehemently disputes De Santis' opinion of his team's conduct. "Each attorney looks at the cases, uses state training, a checklist, the domestic violence handbook, and looks at what we can prove," he says. "My take on this is that Marie [De Santis] has ideas on how we should be handling cases. Sometimes I can't make her happy. But she always knows where to find me and she always has my ear."

As a result of a two-hour meeting with De Santis on Valerie's case, Jacobs also agreed to work with the Women's Justice Center on new guidelines for attorneys, have the center do a training for prosecutors on handling domestic violence and sexual assault cases, and hire a half-time bilingual victim's advocate.

"The proof is in the pudding," De Santis says. "We've had these conversations before. The improvements need to be institutionalized and not just a whim of a few months and we're back to where we were before."

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From the January 7-13, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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