Paul Zellerbach

10:00 PM PDT on Monday, July 4, 2011

By RICHARD K. DE ATLEY
The Press-Enterprise

Six months after he took over the job almost no one expected him to get, Riverside County District Attorney Paul Zellerbach is running an office with fewer people, less money and greater challenges than he could have guessed.

In addition to a tight budget for this fiscal year, and wrestling with an inherited multimillion-dollar deficit for the previous year, Zellerbach’s office currently has about 250 fewer employees than the 950 authorized.

In an interview, Zellerbach said one of his biggest concerns for the future of his office — the pending return of state prison inmates to local custody — was not even on the radar when he was elected in June 2010.

The new state budget contains a plan by Gov. Jerry Brown that eventually will transfer to Riverside County custody about 1,600 state prison inmates who are considered nonviolent, are not affiliated with gangs and are not sexual predators.

The plan also will keep in local custody future inmates sentenced to fewer than three years in state prison and will make counties responsible for handling and incarcerating parole violators. On top of that, the U.S. Supreme Court in May ordered California to reduce its prison population by more than 30,000 inmates in the next two years.

With 3,900 county jail beds and a standing federal order to release inmates to avoid overcrowding, Zellerbach said he is concerned that some of those released early will re-offend.

Added to the increased parole violation cases, there will be more work for his office, he said.

“There are two forces working here, the Supreme Court decision and the governor’s realignment plan. … It’s almost a perfect storm,” he said.

CRIMINAL CASE MANAGEMENT

Courthouse observers said the most immediate difference since Zellerbach took over Jan. 3 is how his office manages criminal cases.

His predecessor, Rod Pacheco, was known for refusing to allow his prosecutors to negotiate plea agreements after preliminary hearings for people accused of serious and violent crimes, attorney Ryan Markson said.

Defense attorneys complained that Pacheco’s office generally disregarded new information that might affect the case.

Such negotiations are now possible with Zellerbach’s staff, Markson said, “but he is not giving away the farm, that’s for sure.”

Zellerbach said his office pays attention to information developed by either prosecution or defense investigations.

“I have made it clear both to my staff as well as defense bar and judges that my staff is willing to re-evaluate a case,” he said.

Court records show Zellerbach’s office has decided not to seek the death penalty in at least six cases previously designated as capital punishment cases.

His office also has been willing to accept guilty pleas from possible death penalty defendants in return for a sentence of life in prison without parole.

The most high-profile case was that of Joseph Edward Duncan III, who was facing a death penalty trial for the 1997 abduction and murder of Anthony Martinez. Duncan already had received multiple federal court death sentences for the slaying of a family in Idaho. Riverside County prosecutors accepted a plea from Duncan that resulted in two consecutive life sentences without parole.

“He deserves to die,” Zellerbach said of Duncan. “But from a practical standpoint, the federal government will achieve that long before the State of California will. And the (Martinez) family wanted closure.”

He said his office has sought the death penalty this year in other cases, only to have juries decide otherwise.

In one case, jurors chose life without parole for a gang member convicted in the shooting of a 13-year-old Riverside boy in 2002.

Jurors in an Indio gang-murder case also recommended life in prison without parole over death for two convicted shooters.

“They are not the verdicts we had hoped for, but nonetheless when you are seeing a pattern in these types of cases, with jurors in very divergent geographical regions in the county returning the same kinds of verdicts, they are sending a message to us,” he said.

TRIAL CONVICTIONS UP

Zellerbach said statistics gathered for nearly the first six months of his term indicate conviction rates are increasing for cases brought to trial, at 82 to 85 percent. He said conviction rates were between 70 and 75 percent for all of 2010.

Riverside County Public Defender Gary Windom said Zellerbach’s attorneys are resolving cases that don’t need to go to trial, “and then we litigate the matters that need to be litigated.”

Windom publicly feuded with Pacheco during the former district attorney’s four years in office.

With Zellerbach, “it’s just like night and day,” Windom said. “I met with him three times before he was sworn in. We agreed that we would have a monthly meeting to discuss items of mutual concern, and we have kept that agreement.”

Zellerbach, a 22-year career prosecutor who was elected to a judgeship, has not yet run into vocal, on-the-record detractors.

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