At the conclusion of my time as Merced County District Attorney I wanted to take a moment to thank the people of Merced County for the opportunity to serve them these last 12 and a half years as District Attorney and provide an accounting of some of what we accomplished in our efforts to improve public safety.
I have been beyond blessed to have had an incredible management staff and employees throughout my tenure. Working together we transformed the Merced County District Attorney’s Office, literally and figuratively, into one of the most progressive and accomplished in the state.
One of the most fundamental responsibilities of a District Attorney is to work for safer communities. I’m proud to report that I will leave office with the county far safer and less violent than when I was elected and, in fact, safer than it has been in decades.
Merced County law enforcement, through innovation and close collaboration, has dramatically reduced violent crime during the last three years, including a historic decline in the homicide rate. From 2005 to 2015 Merced County was averaging 27 homicides a year, including 30 or more in 2013 through 2015. These alarming numbers resulted in Merced County ranking number one, or in the top three, in California for murders per 100,000 people during that period. The vast majority of the violence was driven by criminal street gangs operating in Merced County, sometimes at the direction of high ranking inmates in California prisons.
Shortly after my election in 2006, I created Merced County’s first multi-agency gang task force, now known as MAGNET (Merced Area Gang and Narcotics Enforcement Team) to better coordinate law enforcement efforts against gang violence. In 2015 I brought to Assemblyman Adam Gray a proposal to create an intelligence unit attached to the District Attorney’s office to help law enforcement better track the activities of gang members in our communities. Through Assemblyman Gray’s skillful use of the state budget process, Merced County received $4.5 million to create the VIPER program which employs five intelligence analysts to monitor, assess and disseminate information regarding gang activity in our communities.
Since creating the VIPER program and coordinating its use with county law enforcement we have seen homicides drop to nine in 2016, 19 in 2017 and 14 in 2018. That means for the last three years we have averaged about 14 homicides a year after averaging 30 for the previous three years. The VIPER funding also enabled us to devote nearly half a million dollars to two programs to keep kids out of gang life which are now up and running in Merced and Los Banos.
Not coincidentally, gang violence has been substantially curtailed over the last three years which is the factor most responsible for the decline in homicides. VIPER has been a tremendous success and we owe Assemblyman Gray a debt of gratitude.
The soaring number of homicides also put an incredible burden on the attorneys in our office to get these cases to trial. Two years ago, we had 67 defendants charged with homicide. Chief Deputies Hal Nutt and Rob Carroll devised a priority process for reducing the backlog in homicides and it exceeded our hopes. Murder cases were fast tracked for trial and today there are 32 murder defendants awaiting trial, a decline of more than half.
Even more notable has been our jury trial success rate in homicide cases. In my opinion it is unsurpassed in California over the last 12 years. Since 2006 our attorneys have obtained guilty verdicts against 64 of the 67 defendants we prosecuted for murder. Of those, I’m proud to have personally tried five of them, including obtaining the death penalty against the gang member who murdered Merced Police Officer Stephan Gray. Our attorneys are some of the most talented and best trained in California and I am proud to have had the honor to lead them.
Another vital component of safer communities is ensuring we are doing everything possible to get our children through at least high school graduation. High school dropouts are seven times more likely to be incarcerated than graduates and one of my highest priorities as DA has been to forge a closer relationship with our county’s schools and educators. A decade ago I worked with Merced City School District board members and administrators to push back the school day for junior high students to a dismissal time after 3 p.m. to lessen the opportunities for unsupervised young teenagers to fall prey to gangs or juvenile crime. This has contributed, in some measure, to a dramatic reduction in juvenile crime statistics in our county.
Six years ago I also founded Merced County Project 10% in which UC Merced students are trained to visit eighth grade classrooms to share their own stories and struggles and encourage the eighth graders to commit themselves to graduating high school. Working with former Merced County Office of Education Superintendent Steve Gomes and current Superintendent Steve Tietjen, and administrators across the county, and other local leaders, these UC students have spoken with more than 10,000 eighth graders and we have seen high school graduation rates rise to their highest levels ever. That bodes well for public safety in the decades to come.
Dr. Tietjen and I last year also created a partnership in which a DA investigator is permanently assigned to the Merced County Office of Education to work with our school districts to reduce truancy, especially in K-8 classes. The investigator meets with parents and SARB (School Attendance Review Board) personnel to target parents whose kids are chronically absent from school. After just one year we have already seen an increase in attendance throughout the county.
Reducing gang violence and fostering a closer working relationship with educators have been the primary challenges of my tenure as District Attorney and I believe we have made enormous strides that have resulted in safer communities. But we have done so many other things to improve the administration of justice in Merced County. Among the most notable are:
*Crime Stoppers – With former Chief Investigator Pat Lunney we created the county’s first Crime Stoppers program.
*Case Management – in 2012, we purchased and implemented, without county general fund dollars, a revolutionary new case management system to better process the thousands of cases we file each year. As a result, Merced County became just the second county in California to go paperless in the courtroom; and still remains one of the few; our attorneys use laptops instead of paper files for all of their courtroom work. We also now use our case management system, not paper exchanges, to transmit documents and information we’re required to provide defense attorneys. We’ve also completed an interface with the Merced Sheriff’s Department to electronically transmit police reports and evidence and are nearing completion of a similar agreement with the Merced Police Department. Interfaces with other county law enforcement agencies are slated to take place in 2019.
*Mock Trial program – working with Dr. Tietjen at MCOE two years ago we began a program with Merced County schools in which volunteer prosecutors from our office and other local attorneys teach students how to prepare and present a case in a courtroom. Competitions among local high schools have been held at the Old County Courthouse in 2017 and the new Robert M. Falasco Courthouse in Los Banos in 2018, with new competitions slated for 2019.
*New Facilities in Merced and Los Banos – in October of 2011, the District Attorney’s staff moved into the former County Bank building at 550 W. Main St., in Merced following the purchase and renovation of the 30,000 square foot office and parking structure. The project was paid for with federal and state tobacco tax funds, not county general fund revenue. The move allowed the DA to consolidate all of its Merced employees in one location after having rented five buildings during the previous five years at an annual taxpayer cost of $350,000.
In March of this year, the DA’s Westside employees also moved into newly renovated facilities in the old Los Banos Courthouse at 445 I St, after spending more than a decade in a trailer adjacent to the courthouse. Both moves are expected to provide ample space for the District Attorney’s office for decades to come.
*Collaboration with CASA – the District Attorney facilitated a grant award of $350,000 to CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) of Merced County to provide expanded services to children in foster care.
*Smart Water – the District Attorney and Sheriff Vern Warnke, working with the Merced County Farm Bureau unveiled a revolutionary new program in February of 2018 to assist farmers in their ongoing battle against theft of agricultural property and equipment. SmartWater CSA is an ultraviolet light that enables farmers to mark and identify their property and provides traceability and undeniable proof of ownership when stolen property is recovered.
*Conviction Integrity Unit – recognizing that mistakes can happen in the criminal justice system, the District Attorney created another safety net to review criminal convictions when legitimate factual or evidentiary questions are brought to our attention. A review panel consisting of a Chief Deputy District Attorney, a Supervising Deputy District and a local defense attorney review additional evidence and determine whether a conviction should be revisited.
*Multi-Disciplinary Interview Center – the District Attorney’s new office in Merced permitted creation of inhouse rooms to conduct interviews of child victims of sexual assault. The interviews are conducted by a forensically trained social worker in a safe, nurturing and child friendly facility to minimize the trauma of young sexual assault victims.
*Judges – two former chief deputies and one former supervising deputy district attorney were appointed to the Merced County Superior Court. Judge Dave Moranda, Judge Mark Bacciarini, both served as my chief deputies before their appointment to the bench. Earlier this year, my former supervising Deputy District Attorney, Steve Slocum, also was appointed to serve as a Superior Court judge. Each was a highly respected member of the DA management team.
*Appointments of Women – In 2016 Nicole Silveira was appointed the DA’s office’s first woman supervising deputy district attorney; in 2017, Anna Hazel was appointed the office’s first woman to supervise the Bureau of Investigations.
None of these achievements would have been possible without the incredible efforts of Director of Administrative Services Jeannette Pacheco, Chief Deputies Harold Nutt and Rob Carroll, Chief Investigator Bill Olson, former Assistant District Attorney Joe Tresidder and former Chief Investigator Pat Lunney and our other managers. No one could have been better served by a management team than I was and the people of Merced County have benefitted enormously from their talents and dedication.
For 26 years I have been a member of the District Attorney’s office and serving these last 12 years as the elected District Attorney has been the highest honor and privilege of my life. I cannot adequately express the character and commitment of the men and women who work in this office. They are the finest of public servants. I am grateful to the people of Merced County for entrusting me with the responsibility of leading these amazing public safety professionals for three terms. I wish the new District Attorney, Kimberly Helms Lewis, great success and the same enjoyment and satisfaction that I have taken in trying to make Merced County a safer place for all of us.