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DA Report Card:
D is for Disappointment

Almost a year ago now, on January 7, 2003, Stephen Passalacqua took the office of Sonoma County District Attorney on a wave of hope. Elected in a landslide of voter protest against the eight years of abuses of incumbent Mike Mullins, women and Latinos were especially hopeful that Passalacqua would fulfill his campaign promises to improve response to violence against women and to remedy the offices’ absence of Spanish language accessability.

The 58 to 43% electoral ousting of incumbent Mike Mullins was an unambiguous mandate for change. Yet, now, almost a year after Passalacqua has taken office, questions loom as to whether he is willing to use his powers to make the needed changes. And whether he has the fortitude to confront the sizeable reactionary forces still entrenched in his office.

No doubt, Passalacqua has made some changes on behalf of victims. Since taking office Passalacqua has:

  • Hired Sandra Cardenas, a capable and dedicated bilingual domestic violence counselor,
  • Established a homicide prosecution team,
  • Sustained open communication and accessibility to his office for both victim advocates and for victims,
  • Ended the retaliatory and repressive response to victim advocates that was a constant feature of Mullin's reign,
  • Put the office's top-heavy administration back to work in the courtroom prosecuting cases,
  • Hired a new head of victim assistance services.
  • Established a professional victim advisory committee.

Despite the general positive direction of these changes, they don't go near far enough to correct the abusive practices of mishandling violence against women that took firm root in our DA’s office over the years. As an ominous sign of future inaction, consider this:

On March 6th we had our first meeting with Passalacqua. At the top of our list of many changes we felt essential, we asked that when sex crimes cases came into the office, a copy of the police report be given immediately to the sex crimes advocate in the office in the same way that a copy of all domestic violence cases are immediately given to the domestic violence counselors in the office.

In the months that followed we reiterated the importance of this change with examples to Passalaqua of sex crimes victims whose re-victimization by his office could have been prevented if the victim had been connected to an advocate. We reiterated the request in emails, phone calls, and in an hour presentation to his victim committee. And still, despite the obvious benefit to victims, despite that this was a no cost-minimal effort change, there was no action.

October 15, the Spanish-speaking parents of a 14- year-old rape victim called us in desperation. They had been searching for two months for help, they said, as the trauma of their daughter's rape was ripping the family apart. On looking into the case we found that the family had cooperated fully with police, that the perpetrator had, in fact, confessed to police, that the detective had sent the case to the DA's office on August 27th, and that on August 29th the prosecutor read the case and filled out paperwork indicating that the case merited prosecution as a rape.

But from August 29th to October 16th when we intervened on the family’s behalf, the prosecutor had allowed this case to sit dormant on his desk with no action taken. And he allowed the family to twist in the wind without any contact from him, or without any contact from an advocate. Clearly, if a copy of the case had been given to the sex crimes advocate, the advocate would have contacted the family and connected them to help all the way back in late August, and the family would have been spared the unforgivable weeks of torment they suffered. The advocate also most certainly would have protested the prosecutor’s inaction to a superior.

One of the most frequent questions we’re asked is “Why?”, “Why would a prosecutor leave a perfectly prosecutable rape case sitting on his desk?” The short answer is that some prosecutors shelve rape cases in the hopes that the victim won’t figure out how to protest the inaction, and that the victim will disappear, and along with her, the case, the work, and the hassle will also disappear.

“Shelving” rape cases is a very effective means of permanently burying rape cases. This is exactly the kind of abuse Passalacqua was elected to stop, as there’s more than one attorney in his office who have practiced this kind of abuse for years. Giving a copy of all sex crimes reports to the sex crimes advocate is not a cure-all, but it is a relatively easy, inexpensive check on this abuse.

In response to our protest over this latest case, Passalacqua has taken a step sideways. Copies of sex crimes cases are being made, but instead of being given to the experienced sex crimes advocate in the office, they are being sent to an inexperienced victim assitance staff across town, just another place where cases are as likely to be buried as not.

The question isn’t whether Passalacqua wants to do right by victims. We believe he does. The question is whether he has the fortitude to use the power he’s been given to buck the resistance and abuses of the old guard.

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Copyright © Marie De Santis,
Women's Justice Center,


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