Prosecuting Sexually Violent Predators in Orange County

It is no secret to my close friends and family that I have wanted to be an intern at the Orange County District Attorney’s Office since high school. Beginning the summer of my junior year, I applied for a summer internship with the DA to no avail. Every year, it was always the same—I crossed my T’s and dotted my I’s on my application, yet I never received a response. Having earned the honor of becoming a Matsui Local Government Fellow, I hoped things would be different this time around. Much to my delight, I hoped correctly and was contacted by a Deputy District Attorney to talk about being placed in a unit that typically needs interns: Homicide, Sexual Assault/Sexually Violent Predator, or Fraud. I had hoped to be placed in the Homicide Unit; the Fraud Unit sounded overly legalistic, and I was afraid being placed in the Sexual Assault Unit would cause me to lose faith in my fellow man (and woman). However, I soon learned that Homicide and Fraud were overstaffed, which left only the Sexual Assault Unit. After receiving a cheery welcome email from Deputy District Attorney Nicole Varner, I knew my fears about the Sexual Assault Unit were overblown.

I wasn’t sure what to expect on my first day at the Sexual Assault Unit. Were the DAs going to be deluged in cases? What kind of work would I be doing as a mere undergraduate intern? Would my work as an intern discourage me from pursuing a career at the DA’s Office—a career path I had mulled over since childhood? I walked into the lobby and was greeted by a paralegal named Scott Carnahan. He seemed excited that day, and I couldn’t help but wonder why. I quickly learned that my first day also happened to coincide with the DA’s first sexual assault trial of the spring. For paralegals and DAs alike, trials are the culmination of weeks (or sometimes months, as I was told) of effort building a case, lining up expert testimony, and rifling through multiple boxes of evidence and documents. Scott and I made our way a few blocks down the street to the Superior Court of Orange County to watch the beginning of the case. We made it just in time to listen to the DA’s first expert witness, a doctor from the Department of State Hospitals.

Given that this case in particular has yet to finish, it would be both imprudent and illegal for me to divulge key details. Instead, I will explain the nature of the case. From what I experienced on my first day, I was under the impression that the Defendant (known as a “Respondent” in civil trials) was being prosecuted for committing some sexually violent crime. It wasn’t until later that I learned that the trial was civil in nature, meaning that the Respondent would not face jail time if convicted by a jury of his peers. Rather than this case being a vehicle by which to prosecute the Respondent for a crime, it was actually an attempt to commit the Respondent into a mental health facility until he is deemed suitable for release back into society. In these types of cases, the Prosecution (also known as the “Petitioner”) has to prove four criteria beyond a reasonable doubt:

1) that the Respondent is a sexually violent predator (SVP), meaning the Respondent targets and perpetrates sexually violent acts against people he or she does not know;

2) that the Respondent suffers from a mental condition;

3) that the Respondent’s mental condition consequently predisposes him or her to commit sexually violent crimes;

4) and that, as a result, the Respondent’s release from custody would be a danger to the safety of society because the Respondent is expected to recidivate (commit crime again).

As weeks passed, I witnessed more of the trial unfold and subsequently learned of the number of sexually violent crimes the Respondent had perpetrated, or admitted to perpetrating, over the course of his life. Last Thursday marked the end of the Public Defender’s case, which meant that the DA and the Public Defender would soon deliver their closing statements and beliefs about the Respondent’s ability to peacefully reintegrate into society.

Outside of court, I have been working under the direction of Scott and two other paralegals, Heather and Alicia, all of whom seem to work nonstop to help their DAs prepare cases. From time to time, they have me assist them in creating Subpoenas Dulce Tecum, which is essentially a records request backed by the power of the State. Other times, they’ll ask me to help them locate specific documents (medical records from State Hospitals, police reports, and the like) to craft parts of a case. My final duty thus far is to help file away documents into case boxes. By law, the DA is forbidden from destroying evidence and documents pertaining to a case—even if that case has been won or lost—since those materials could be used in the future to create a dossier on the Defendant. Though admittedly this task is mundane, the paralegals have made it crystal clear to me that this helps them immensely; the time they save when I file documents frees them up to deliver motions to court, read police reports, strategize with the DAs, or something else of greater importance. Knowing this has made the paper cuts worth it.

Not even a month has passed since I joined the Sexual Assault Unit, and I feel like I’m learning a great deal about the practice of law from both the DAs’ and paralegals’ perspectives. What was once a dream to intern at the DA’s office many years ago has finally become a reality, and I could not be more satisfied. In the weeks ahead, I hope to further expand my horizons, watch more trials, and become more proficient in my understanding of this area of law.

Brandon Wong is a senior at UC Berkeley with dual degrees in political science and public policy. He is currently interning with the Orange County District Attorney’s Office as a Matsui Local Government Fellow.