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Safeguarding Innocence: A Glimpse into the World of a Child Abuse Prosecutor

Nov 20, 2023
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Heather Stephenson, a deputy district attorney, prosecutes crimes against children. The conversation delves into the intricacies of the prosecution process. She contrasts the misdemeanor unit's handoffs between lawyers at different stages of a case with the importance of a single attorney handling each case from start to finish when prosecuting sensitive cases. Heather reflects on the importance of building trust with victims, how critical a team of lawyers and non-lawyers are to a functioning office, and the emotional impact of her work. She is a 2017 graduate of the University of Pacific McGeorge School of Law.

Transcript

Katya Valasek:

We're joined today by Heather Stephenson, a 2017 graduate of the University of Pacific McGeorge School of Law and Deputy District Attorney at the Sacramento County DA Office, where she prosecutes crimes against children. You went to law school intending to be a trial lawyer. You then joined the DA's office right out of law school. Did you know you wanted to be a prosecutor?

Heather Stephenson:

I actually didn't. I had pretty much no idea what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to be in a courtroom. I knew that's kind of where my skill set lied. I learned that pretty quickly in law school. Once I started, I decided to participate in the first year 1L mock trial competition. I did pretty well in that. And so I decided to actually try out for the team. That was a huge motivating factor for me to eventually apply at the DA's office because a number of my coaches I had throughout my time on the mock trial team actually worked here. I learned a lot from them and I still go to them to this day for advice. That's kind of what motivated me to shift towards prosecution. They would come to practice, talk about their cases, talk about what they did on a daily basis. And it sounded very exciting. It sounded very rewarding. And so I was like, “man, I feel like I got to do that.”

During law school, I interned actually at a civil firm. And then I worked during an internship at the Federal Public Defender's office. So I had kind of seen different areas of law. I saw the civil aspect and then the Federal Public Defender's Office. And then once I was on the team and was able to learn from my coaches and hear about what they do, I knew that this was the place I wanted to be.

Katya Valasek:

Can you talk about who works there?

Heather Stephenson:

Yeah, so we are budgeted for 185 attorney positions, but there's so many different types of positions at the office. We wouldn't be able to function with just attorneys. We have criminal investigators – sworn peace officers who help us investigate and do follow-up on our cases. They'll track down witnesses. They'll locate the surveillance that we couldn't find. Victim advocates are essential to our cases, especially the types of cases I deal with now. We have a victim advocate on all of our cases who is there to support the victim, to offer them services, and kind of just be a shoulder that they can lean on. While we're doing all the other aspects of the case, of the trial, they're talking to the victim on the phone, they're in court with them while they're testifying. So we really wouldn't be able to do what we do without them. We also have our legal secretaries who do a lot of our behind the scenes work when we need to amend charges, or add charges, or maybe dismiss charges.

We have an IT department who helps us with all of our tech issues. And then we have our trial support services department. They help us create really cool videos and demonstratives for trial. They're very skilled at enhancing video or audio to maybe make, you can't really hear it very well, but they can enhance it and make it so that you can hear it. If you need redactions made or things cut out when you're in the middle of trial, you can rush over to them and say, “I'm so sorry. I know this is my fifth time this week,” but they do it, no questions asked. So everybody plays such an important role in this office. And I think that is kind of what makes us function is, we have not only attorneys who go across the street and do the trials and do the hearings, but we have all the help of all of our staff here as well.

Katya Valasek:

You're about six years into your career now and part of the Special Assault and Child Abuse Unit, but that's not the role you got right away. So where did you start out your career in the DA office?

Heather Stephenson:

So when you start here, the first place you go is to the misdemeanor unit as a legal research assistant. Oftentimes you're waiting for bar results for those first few months. So you spend a lot of that time doing hearings with the supervisor, going over and observing more experienced attorneys. And then once you get bar results, and sometimes before, you then jump right into the misdemeanor unit. And so that's what I did and you kind of hit the ground running doing trials. All different types of misdemeanor cases from DUIs to battery to sexual battery, indecent exposure.

And then from there, you move on to felony preliminary hearings. And your job is just to bust out prelims to get them on to the next stage. And so you could have anywhere from one to four or five prelims on a day. You present the evidence to the judge. The judge makes a determination if there's enough to go forward to trial. And then you pass it on to the trial attorney.

So that's the track I took. I went from misdemeanors to prelims, and then I eventually became a trial attorney. And then once you do that for a certain period of time, once you've gotten enough experience, done a variety of different felony trials, then you move on to a special team. And so that's where I am now. Before I came to this special team, I was a deputy on the Domestic Violence Special Team. So we prosecuted felony domestic violence cases. And then I came to this unit, which we call SACA, the Special Assault Child Abuse Unit.

Katya Valasek:

So I wanna go back for a second to that prelim work you did. You mentioned that you could have multiple prelims a day. Are those pretty straightforward?

Heather Stephenson:

So they can definitely vary. Some can be a little more straightforward. For example, you have maybe a stolen car case. You have one count. You call the officer in to say what he observed. And then that's kind of it. But then there's other cases where there may be something we want to work out with the case. We're trying to figure out what happened here. We might call a victim or a witness in live to testify. So those are two very different situations, but both came up a lot in prelims. And so when you had one that you knew you were gonna do live, have the victim or a witness come in, you kind of had to allocate your time differently. But if you had a couple that, you know, were maybe more straightforward, just one count of something, usually you could get those done in the same day.

Katya Valasek:

And when you move up to the felony trial unit, are you thrown in right away?

Heather Stephenson:

Yes, pretty much. But I think at that point, you're ready for it and looking forward to it. In misdemeanors, you get to do a lot of trials. You get such great experience right out the gate that, by the time you've then done your rotation in misdemeanors and you go to prelims, you're ready for trials. And I think having us go to prelims first is important because you learn the elements of all the different felonies that you're eventually gonna be proving in trial. You learn sentencing. Felony sentencing can be pretty confusing. It involves a lot of math, which I know some lawyers tried to avoid. So then once you go to trials, you're like, okay, I've seen this charge now a million times, I'm ready, I can do this. And so the office prepares you for when you go to felony trials. And it's an exciting time. It's also a really fun place to be in the unit or in the office. The camaraderie on the teams is really cool and it's fun.

Katya Valasek:

So now you've moved to a unit that handles really sensitive cases, and this came with a shift in job responsibilities. But before we dig into that, I want to first hear about the prosecution process for the misdemeanor unit where you started because that involved a lot of handoffs and coordination between lawyers.

Heather Stephenson:

When a case is investigated by law enforcement agencies, they decide whether or not they're going to submit it to our office for potential prosecution. Once their investigation is complete, they will send it over to us. That's for misdemeanors and felonies. We have a intake department that reviews the police reports, and makes a decision whether or not we're gonna file charges. And then at that point, if we've decided to file charges, it will go to what's called MCR, or misdemeanor court review, and those attorneys are the first ones, besides the filing deputy, who get the case and bring it to court.

And so at that very early stage, they'll review the case, they'll come up with an offer, they'll extend the offer to the defense attorney. And oftentimes there'll be more than one appearance in these initial stages because they're trying to negotiate the case, they're trying to see if they can reach a resolution short of a trial.

Katya Valasek:

When you say there's an appearance, what does that mean?

Heather Stephenson:

What happens is they'll go, the judge will call the case and we will make our appearance, “Heather Stevenson on behalf of the people;” the defense will make their appearance; and then the judge will wanna know the status of the case. So either we've reached a resolution, your honor, and then we'll just do the plea or defense is asking for more time to continue so that they can investigate, or we can't resolve so we're going to set the matter for trial. Those are the three possibilities that happen at the misdemeanor level. and in misdemeanors, you don't have preliminary hearings. If you don't want to resolve your case at this early stage, you just set it for trial. So that's a little bit different than the felony cases.

Katya Valasek:

So before the judge calls the case, where do these discussions happen between the two parties?

Heather Stephenson:

A lot of discussion is done over email before the appearance. You will pull your calendar, you'll see what cases are on and you'll go through and you'll oftentimes email the attorney on the other side and say, “hey, we have this case on. Here's the offer. Let me know if you maybe have a counter offer.” There'll be some back-and-forth in emails. There'll be phone calls. Oftentimes discussion happens in court too. Attorneys will come in and say, “hey you made this offer can we resolve for this?” And the attorney will review the case and either say yes or no.

Katya Valasek:

So if a case isn't resolved, what happens next?

Heather Stephenson:

At the misdemeanor level, it would set for trial. If somebody is out of custody, you have 45 days to get them to trial unless they wanna waive time and go beyond the 45 days. If it's a misdemeanor case and they're in custody, we have 30 days to get them to trial. Again, same thing, unless they decide to waive time. Now for the felonies, if they can't resolve it at the early stages, it then would set for that preliminary hearing. That's the first stage. And then from there, it would set for trial.

Katya Valasek:

And is it the same person who was handling the appearance and the discussions that would take it over at that point or does someone else step in?

Heather Stephenson:

At the misdemeanor level, once a case is set for trial, it goes to our misdemeanor trial unit. So those attorneys would get that case, they would then work it up for trial, do whatever investigation needed to be done, request whatever evidence they need from the agency, and then they would do the trial. In felonies, same kind of thing. It would go from the attorney at the settlement level to a prelim deputy. And then that deputy would do the prelim and then that case would go to a trial attorney.

Katya Valasek:

So I walk you through all of this because I want to draw a contrast to the process that you're in now, which is where you're the only lawyer involved after a case is filed.

Heather Stephenson:

Yes. So in my unit, all of the child abuse or sexual abuse of children, all go to my supervisor. And he reviews the cases, he makes a filing decision. And if he decides to file a case, it goes directly to somebody on my team. So we handle it from the very beginning, all the way through. We handle the initial appearances where we're negotiating a case, where we're making an offer. And then if it sets for preliminary hearing, we do the hearing. And then when and if it sets for trial, we're the ones who do the trial as well.

Katya Valasek:

I just want to make a point here that there's an important reason for you to start the case early on. You're dealing with children. So it's very important for you to build that trust and build that rapport. Was that a change that you had to adjust to when you moved to your current unit?

Heather Stephenson:

So it's definitely different. Domestic violence is the same way in the sense that we kept our cases from the beginning, for similar reasons. You want to develop that rapport with your victim. You want them to know that you are the DA handling the case from the beginning. In our types of cases, we usually have at least a couple meetings with our victim. Usually we’ll do what we call a meet and greet pretty early on in the process. And that's strictly just to meet them, just so they can put a face to a name on our side. They know who's working on the case and we can kind of get to know them a little bit and make them feel comfortable. And then we often later have another meeting, which is more specifically about trial preparation and things like that.

So, I do think that it's important that these cases stick with the same attorney so that there is that level of comfort. Oftentimes we have child victims and witnesses, but we also oftentimes have adults who were victimized as children. I think it's equally as important that they have that solid foundation. They know who their attorney is; they've met them and you kind of stick with them throughout. Same thing in domestic violence cases. It's important for your victim to know you and to know that you're the one working their case. And so a lot of the victim-sensitive units do have a single attorney handling all the various stages for those reasons.

Katya Valasek:

After charges have been filed, what is the very first thing you do?

Heather Stephenson:

There'll be an arraignment on the complaint. And that's just basically where the judge says, “you're charged in the complaint with, this in Count 1, this in Count 2, you know, what would you like to do?” And a lot of times they pick a new date to come back and so that his attorney can get all the discovery, can get all the reports, and be prepared to negotiate the case.

Katya Valasek:

Just as an aside, I feel like this is one of the very few interviews we've done where it is close to what you see on television. Were you surprised at all by anything that felt very different to you when you got to the arraignment once the process started? Is there something that television gets wrong?

Heather Stephenson:

I think something that television gets wrong is that there's this like hostile relationship between prosecutors and defense attorneys. I think that's a big one. I think that especially here in Sacramento County. I mean, we get along with our counterparts. I think that's really important to have a good working relationship with them. And I think that makes us able to, one, resolve cases because we're able to have this like open line of communication. On TV, the prosecutor and the defense attorney are constantly at each other's throats. I mean, don't get me wrong, there are times where it gets a little heated, but on the breaks and during the lunch break, we're kind of having small talk and asking about family and what people are doing over the weekend because, at the end of the day, we're doing our job and they're doing their job. And I think that that's huge to making the system work is to, being cordial and friendly, with someone who is on the other side than you are. But I think without that relationship and without that camaraderie, it would be difficult to do our job. So I think when how TV portrays it, maybe sometimes in trial, but usually we're all pretty cordial.

Katya Valasek:

So the work that you do involves justice, both for the public who you're prosecuting on behalf of, but the victims and the person alleged to have committed the crime. When you're answering questions like, what is just? What are you weighing?

Heather Stephenson:

I mean, there's a number of things that we take into account as prosecutors in deciding what would be a just resolution. In particular, I think when we're negotiating cases and coming up with a resolution, some of the things we look at are, what's the conduct in this case? Is it violent conduct? Is it not violent conduct? What's the age of the person accused? Is it a very young person? What is their criminal history? Have they had prior convictions or have they not? Does mental health play a role? And we do take everything into consideration. We want to get justice for our victims and, most importantly, we just wanna do the right thing.

Katya Valasek:

How much autonomy do you have when you're weighing these different considerations in what you ask for or what you seek?

Heather Stephenson:

So in my cases, on our team, my supervisor is the one who makes the final call. We have a sit-down discussion and we discuss the case. And he certainly takes into consideration our input. You know, it's kind of on us to present the case to him. Given the sensitive nature of the cases we're dealing with, it's nice to have somebody with the experience he does kind of be the one to say, okay, this is where we're at; this is a fair offer.

Katya Valasek:

If there is no resolution and you're going to go to trial, how do you prioritize the various steps along the way with so many simultaneous cases?

Heather Stephenson:

Yes, so this is where having a team comes in very handy. Each unit in our office is comprised of different attorneys, different legal secretaries, different investigators assigned to all the different units. And so on my team, I have a number of other attorneys that I can lean on. So if I'm in trial, I have a couple prelims set that day or appearances over in our jail courts, I can shoot a text in our group text and say, “hey guys, is anybody going to department 62?” And somebody will have your back. Somebody will say like, “hey, I'm going there, or no, I'm not, but I can, what do you need?” And so, I mean, that's huge. We all kind of cover for each other. We stand in for each other. We'll do preliminary hearings for each other. If someone's in trial. So having the team aspect is huge because without that we can't be in two places at once.

Katya Valasek:

I imagine many of these cases you're juggling simultaneously are complex, is it helpful for you then to be involved from start to finish?

Heather Stephenson:

I think so because you are that much more familiar with your case. You know, you've been living it from the very beginning. You've done the preliminary hearing. So you learn all your cases and you know just by a name which case we're talking about. And so I do think that's important on these types of cases to have that familiarity. And I think that having a case from the very beginning makes that possible for us.

Katya Valasek:

I want to end with a discussion of what you do to advocate for yourself. Given the nature of the crimes you prosecute and the number you're juggling at one time, it has to weigh on you. What do you do to make yourself ready to come in every day and advocate fully?

Heather Stephenson:

What gets you through it is what comes after a case has resolved or gone to a jury trial and you've gotten a good verdict. What comes from the families. It’s hard…It's hard to put into words how it feels when you get that voicemail from a mom and her kids thanking you and expressing how grateful they are for all the work you put in. There's attorneys in my unit who have been invited to graduation, who have been invited to birthday parties after cases have resolved, have been invited to weddings because you make such an impact on these kids and these people's lives who have been harmed, oftentimes by people that were supposed to love them, by their relatives, their parents, their teachers.

And so when I have a bad day or I feel down, I like to think about those moments, the look on their face when they're thanking you, how grateful they are. It's unlike anything else. This unit is unlike any other unit I've been in. It's very rewarding from start to finish. And I think that that's how we get through it. That and also leaning on each other when we're having a bad day or when we read a case that's quite frankly hard to read. Sometimes you read something, you gotta take a break and you read something else and you have to take a mental break. And so we have to remember to kind of take care of ourselves. But I think that, you know, most importantly, remembering why we do the job and, you know, how much we're appreciated, kind of gets you through and makes it all more than worth it.

Katya Valasek:

What do you do to unplug when you go home? What do you do to help yourself separate from the heaviness, the heavy material you've been working with all day?

Heather Stephenson:

So I spend time with my family. I have a daughter of my own now. And so I spend time with my husband and my daughter and hug them. Yeah, because I mean, it is tough at times. I also like to go to the gym and blow off steam that way. But I think the family time, especially with these types of cases, is big for me.

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