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SAN JOSE � Stephen Wagstaffe, the longtime chief deputy district attorney for San Mateo County, will be scaling back his administrative duties in order to prosecute a man accused of killing his wife in 1991. Taking on a high-profile case is nothing new for Wagstaffe, who, unlike his counterparts in neighboring counties, likes to jump into the courtroom as lead prosecutor at least once a year. He does it, in part, to remind himself why he practiced law in the first place. But mostly he does it because he can’t stay away from the courtroom. “This is why I became a prosecutor. I can’t give it up,” Wagstaffe said from his Redwood City office Monday. “It’s my one chance to get out of the ivory tower,” he said with a smile. While opening arguments are still a couple of weeks away, Wagstaffe is preparing to prosecute Joseph Morrow, a Menlo Park man accused of killing his wife just a few days before Christmas in 1991. Investigators found her body in 2003, buried in a seven-foot ditch on a Los Gatos property the Morrows owned. The murder has fascinated Wagstaffe for years, and he jumped at the chance to take over the case after the original prosecutor, John “Jack” Grandsaert, was appointed to the San Mateo County Superior Court bench in 2004. “I select my cases on the basis of them being of particular interest to me,” Wagstaffe said. San Mateo County DA James Fox has no problem letting his right-hand man take on weeks of full-time courtroom duty a year. “I basically let Steve do what Steve wants to do because he’s invaluable,” Fox said. It doesn’t hurt that Wagstaffe, 53, has a track record that backs up his ability. “To the best of my recollection, he’s never had an acquittal or hung jury,” Fox said. Technically, that’s not entirely true. Wagstaffe prosecuted a bizarre 2003 case in which a man pleaded guilty to shooting and killing a Burlingame bank teller. The jury hung, and the defendant, Seti Scanlan, was instead put behind bars for life. To carve out the time to prosecute such cases, Wagstaffe delegates the majority of his day-to-day administrative tasks to the office’s two assistant DAs. “I’ve got some great people here who pick up the load for me when I’m in trial,” Wagstaffe said. It’s a difficult juggling act, but those who know him say Wagstaffe can handle just about anything thrown his way. “I’ll tell you how he does it: When he’s in trial he puts in 18 hours a day,” Fox said. “When he’s not in trial he puts in 14 hours a day.” It’s true, Wagstaffe said, admitting that he tries to get into the office by 5:15 a.m. and stays until 9 or 10 p.m. when he’s working on a trial. “He’s a workaholic,” said Michael DeVoy, a former San Mateo prosecutor who left the office in the 1980s to go into private practice and defended Scanlan. Next year, Wagstaffe, who joined the San Mateo DA’s office as a deputy in 1977, plans to take on a man charged with gunning down an East Palo Alto cop earlier this year. Charles Robinson, the county’s assistant chief defender, took the case specifically for the opportunity to face Wagstaffe. “I can be fairly honest: I wouldn’t have taken the case if Steve wasn’t doing it,” said Robinson, who hasn’t tried a case since becoming one of the heads of the private defender’s program nearly five years ago. “Steve and I are on the same level,” Robinson added. “I know he is going to be straight and honest. And I won’t have to learn a new DA.” Wagstaffe’s reputation in court reaches beyond San Mateo County. “It’s what he loves to do,” said Alameda County Chief Assistant DA Nancy O’Malley, who has known Wagstaffe for years. “I marvel at it. We are all envious that he can do that.” Russell Giuntini, the San Francisco DA’s second in command, hasn’t yet gone to trial, and Karyn Sinunu, the chief assistant DA for Santa Clara County, hasn’t tried a case in 10 years. “He’s a prosecutor’s prosecutor. He will see justice done,” Sinunu said. “There’s just no way I could get my job done properly” if she were trying cases. Of course, San Mateo is a much smaller county compared with its neighbors � with just 55 deputy DAs � but still, what Wagstaffe pulls off each year is astonishing, attorneys around the Bay Area agree. “He is so understated,” O’Malley said. “He doesn’t go around bragging about what he does.” Talk about understated: “I’m just an old fart who’s been around awhile,” Wagstaffe says.

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