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Jean Daly became a lawyer to become a prosecutor. That was her dream job when she joined the San Francisco, Calif., district attorney’s office. “I’ve always wanted to be a prosecutor,” Daly said. “If I wasn’t a prosecutor, I wouldn’t be a lawyer. But after 7-1/2 years, Daly says she found herself unappreciated and unwanted because she is a professional prosecutor. Daly and other prosecutors say District Attorney Terence Hallinan made it clear to his staff when he took office in January 1996 that he wanted new, younger — albeit inexperienced — prosecutors. He has not changed his policy. “He campaigned on the fact that he didn’t like or believe in career prosecution,” Daly said. “I have a respectful disagreement with that philosophy.” So Daly quit and was hired by the Los Angeles district attorney’s office, where she says her prosecutorial skills are highly valued. Her career path, she says, is now considerably brighter. Her departure in September was the latest in a continuing exodus of lawyers from the San Francisco DA’s office, and it comes at a time when the office is struggling with a poor conviction rate. Since January, the beginning of Hallinan’s second four-year term, 19 assistant district attorneys have quit and one was fired. Others are also looking at the exit sign. Nineteen-year Assistant DA Carol Lankford-Gross says she plans to retire in February. Veteran prosecutor Paul Principe says he will also leave early in 2001, after 23 years with the office. Both say it’s just time. That’s significant turnover for an office budgeted for 125 lawyers. It reduces the overall trial skills and institutional memory of those who remain in the trenches, and several judges say that’s reflected in the office’s low conviction rate when compared with other jurisdictions. Each departee has his or her own reasons. Some, like Daly, are willing to talk about why they left. Others, such as Patricia Amador-Lacson and Cadio Zirpoli, who have joined civil firms, declined to discuss what prompted them to quit. But for a DA’s office that started off by firing 17 veteran prosecutors, then forced into retirement its chief trial attorney, Thomas Norman, and has seen five chief assistant district attorneys in five years, staff stability has become an oxymoron. Hallinan declined to discuss his staffing problems and referred questions to his newly named chief assistant district attorney, Paul Cummins. “There are myriad reasons,” said Cummins in trying to pinpoint why there’s been such a high turnover. “One is they’re getting a lot more money, and another is different opportunities.” Cummins said he recently played golf with a second-year associate at a downtown firm who is earning more than his own $142,194 annual paycheck. “It used to be we started at more than downtown law firms,” Cummins said. “That was 30 years ago.” He said retaining trial-tested, experienced prosecutors will require a bigger carrot to coax them into public service careers. “I concede there’s been a big turnover, no dispute,” he said. “It says hopefully the Board of Supervisors will see that in order to guarantee the highest quality of prosecutors, they have to be paid commensurately with their counterparts in civil practice.” But many of the former prosecutors who left say pay was not the reason. Former Assistant District Attorney Donald Sanchez envisioned great things would happen when Hallinan was elected in 1995. But his optimism quickly soured as he found himself caught in a maelstrom of office politics and a demeaning demotion. “I was a Terence Hallinan supporter,” Sanchez said recently. “I thought we were going to do good things, but it turned into an inept political machine.” ‘MY CAREER WAS RUINED’ Now a justice of the peace in Safford, Ariz., near the New Mexico border, Sanchez recalled how he was promoted by Hallinan to head the office’s special prosecutions unit. “I had the people and [the unit] had the potential,” he said. But his tenure was cut short when Hallinan replaced him with another assistant, Debra Hayes, who was the choice of Hallinan’s then-No. 2, David Millstein. Sanchez was reassigned to rebooking defendants charged with crimes. “My career was ruined,” Sanchez said. “My credibility was ruined by the way I was yanked out of special prosecutions. … Terence Hallinan never showed much interest in anything I had to say.” He marked time, eventually sold his San Francisco house for a tidy profit, bought 10 acres in Arizona’s high desert and quit in February. “Why bother to work there?” Sanchez said, after 21 years as a career prosecutor. Andrew Vu, a member of a Vietnamese refugee family, was a Hallinan hire who thought he was on the fast track to prosecutorial stardom. But when Hallinan reassigned Vu from general litigation to the juvenile courts, he viewed the move as a step down in his career aspirations as a prosecutor and quit. Now working for Sony Computer Entertainment in Foster City, Calif., Vu said that many of the minorities that Hallinan hired have left or are considering it. “I don’t want to get into mudslinging… [but] his management was really poor,” Vu said of Hallinan. “The office was poorly run and never got better.” He said most of those who left, including his Vietnamese-American friend J Thanh Duc Ngo, did so because they “just weren’t too pleased with the office. I think I’ll just leave it at that.” Ngo, who now works for Terra Law in San Jose, Calif., declined to comment on why he quit. Elisabeth Frater, a holdover from former DA Arlo Smith’s term, credits Hallinan with giving her a chance to flex her courtroom skills. But he also left much to be desired as an administrator. “The trials and tribulations of being a prosecutor in San Francisco, if you were really committed as many people were, would leave you breathless,” said Frater, who has relocated to Washington, D.C. “The caseloads of some people, the workhorses like myself, were staggeringly large. Others seemed to enjoy a free ride,” she said. “The petty politics wreaked havoc on morale.” She also decried Hallinan’s “lack of judgment” in his hiring practices. “There were too few people who were mature enough or competent enough for the responsibilities they were given,” Frater said. Peter Cling retired after 25 years as a prosecutor and former head of the homicide unit. He wasn’t bitter, just ready. “I didn’t fit into the mold there anymore,” said Cling, who now collects his pension and “bends some nails” in the rental property he owns. Cummins conceded that the San Francisco DA’s office conviction rate has dropped. He said for the first eight months of this year it was 74.5 percent. But he wasn’t ready to attribute it solely to staff turnover or lack of training. “We are slightly below where we used to be [in convictions,] but I wouldn’t put it on any one reason,” he said. “We will improve the conviction rate and trial record with more training and more experience.” Cummins declined to address specific personnel matters. ‘AM I BITTER? A LITTLE.’ Perhaps the two ugliest departures were the firing of veteran Assistant DA Nancy Stretch and the abrupt resignation of Assistant DA Kamala Harris. Stretch was given no reason for her pink slip. And she still doesn’t know why she was let go. “I think it’s a mistake to get rid of all your experienced people,” Stretch said. “[Hallinan] doesn’t value anyone he didn’t hire.” Stretch said the only quasi-explanation she got was that she was “bad for the morale of the office,” but she was never told precisely how she sinned. Stretch is satisfied with retirement and may return in the black robe of a court commissioner, she said, if a slot opens up. “Am I bitter? A little,” she said. “I’m trying not to be. My attitude is there is nothing I can do about it.” Harris quit in August to join the city attorney’s office. She called the San Francisco DA’s office “dysfunctional” and said morale was low. “In general, a lot of people were said to have been unhappy,” Harris said recently, but declined to take another shot at Hallinan. “I’m trying to focus on my work in the city attorney’s office.” Alameda County in the East Bay has become the beneficiary of San Francisco’s dismal record in keeping its top trial attorneys. Christopher “Casey” Bates quit and joined the Alameda DA’s office. And he’s happy he did. “I grew up in Oakland,” Bates said. “This is where I want to practice law. I felt it was my good fortune to get the opportunity.” Another key loss was Hallinan hire Maria Bee, who headed the DA’s hate crimes unit. She quit in September to take a job with Oakland’s new city attorney, John Russo. Bee said it was a good career move. “I see this as a great opportunity to get involved in the exciting changes happening here,” said the Oakland native, who now works 10 minutes from her home. “I felt like it was time for a change. It will widen my expertise.”

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