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Having once been a deputy public defender, San Francisco Assistant District Attorney James Hammer can look at life from both sides now. And like most prosecutors, Hammer now believes justice is best served from the DA’s table. But Hammer adds a unique spin on that claim: As a prosecutor, he says he’s in a better position to rescue the wrongfully accused. “If you’re a real progressive and really believe in justice, you have the power to do the right thing,” he said. “A public defender can file a motion, but that’s all he can do. “The district attorney can walk into the courtroom and say, ‘I read the [police] report. I think we have the wrong guy. Go free.’ “ It’s doubtful, though, that he’ll utter those words in connection with Robert Noel and Marjorie Knoller, the San Francisco lawyer couple charged in connection with the dog-mauling death of their neighbor, Diane Whipple. The case gives Hammer — a fast-climbing prosecutor who doesn’t totally rule out an eventual run for DA — a chance to shine, or slip, on what will no doubt be a national stage. Although he can’t talk about the sensational case, he was willing to discuss in interviews how his life experiences prepared him to lead the prosecution against the pair. Knoller is charged with second-degree murder; she and Noel are both charged with involuntary manslaughter and failing to control a mischievous dog. Michael Cardoza, who represents Whipple’s domestic partner, calls the prosecutor the “Velvet” Hammer. But the assistant DA says he prefers “Sledge” Hammer. A 1986 graduate of University of California Hastings College of the Law and a former cop, Hammer said “one of the ironies” of law school is that students are taught that if they have a passion for justice, the PD’s office is where they belong. “I say if you’re consumed with justice and have a passion for the Constitution, you ought to be a DA and have the power to carry out your conviction,” he said. “Sometimes it means giving people a second chance. That’s why I’m a DA.” ZEN GARDEN One of the first things a visitor notices in Hammer’s office is a 6-inch by 6-inch square shallow wooden tray with sand in it. There are also four or five pebbles scattered in the sand with a small, wooden rake lying in the tray. “I’m amazed at how many people interact with that thing,” he said when asked about the tray. “I think for people it’s this moment of peace in the middle of all the craziness. … You see big old cops and all kinds of people come in and start raking the sand. “They’re doing their Zen garden,” Hammer said, sounding an awful lot like his fellow ex-seminary student, former governor, now Oakland mayor, Jerry Brown, who still often speaks in Zen garden metaphors. While a third-year law student, Hammer interned at the Alameda, Calif., district attorney’s office. That’s where he met prosecutor Richard Iglehart, who later joined the San Francisco DA’s office and was instrumental in getting him his current job. After finishing law school, Hammer went abroad and had an epiphany when he visited Rome. “I thought I might want to be a priest,” he said. But that vocation had to wait. “I came back and the day after I passed the bar [first try], I got a call from Alameda that they had an opening for a DA. I interviewed and went to work two days later,” he recalled. He conducted preliminary hearings and misdemeanor trials throughout the county, winding up in Berkeley courts. He lasted two years before the higher calling of the priesthood grew louder. Then, in 1988, Hammer joined the Jesuits’ California Province of the Society of Jesus. And like Brown, “I took the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience in 1990.” It usually takes 10 years of Jesuit training before one becomes a priest. Like Brown, Hammer never made it to his ordination. “I decided after six years it wasn’t what I was called to be,” he said. “I was called to live in the world. To serve in that way.” But his Jesuit training had a major impact on him. It was another way of seeing life from both sides. “I went from being a DA in Alameda, having a nice car and all this freedom, to getting rid of all my stuff,” he said. “All of a sudden you have a little duffel bag and you’re living in a little room in Tijuana and working in a soup kitchen at 6 o’clock in the morning.” It was during the summer of 1991 that he worked in the San Diego public defender’s office and got his view from that side of the courtroom. “I tried five jury trials and won three of them,” Hammer recalled, including the acquittal of a fisherman accused of taking 50 undersized crabs. In 1992 and still a Jesuit novice, Hammer was teaching English in Krakow, Poland, when he got a call from Santa Clara University School of Law’s Gerald Uelmen asking him if he wanted to come teach criminal procedure there. The school liked his work, so he taught at Santa Clara for 2-1/2 years. He’s still on the faculty as an adjunct professor. Hammer, who was born in San Francisco but grew up in Half Moon Bay, Calif., concedes that until his stint in the PD’s office, his perspective had always been from the law enforcement side. “I was a reserve cop for five years in Half Moon Bay,” he said. “I was 18 years old, given a gun and sworn in,” Hammer recalls. “Isn’t that frightening?” He says working as a defender gave him “a certain amount of humility” about what he was later to do as a prosecutor. “The best job as a young lawyer is a public defender,” said Hammer, who is 39. “You are really representing ordinary folks who are getting into trouble that you or your friends could imagine getting into. … You can really have a huge impact on their lives, and if you win, you’re not harming society.” But later, he said, as a PD moves into defending “rapists, murderers and child molesters, there’s the real possibility that you’re setting free a very dangerous person.” Green prosecutors deal with minor crime and criminals, he said, but as their trial skills improve, they begin to prosecute heavy felonies. “If you can really get a vicious predator off the streets forever, you can really help society,” he said. ‘ONE OF THE BEST THEY HAVE’ After leaving behind his aspirations for the priesthood, Hammer joined the Santa Clara district attorney’s office in 1995 and prosecuted narcotics offenders, general felonies and gang-related cases. Hating the reverse commute, he moved from Palo Alto to San Francisco in 1996. Around the same time, Hammer came out as a gay man, but he prefers to keep the focus on the work that he does. “On a personal level, once everyone knows, it’s nothing to be afraid of,” he said. “Now let’s talk about real stuff.” In 1998, Iglehart, then the chief assistant DA, recommended that District Attorney Terence Hallinan hire the former wannabe priest and true-believer prosecutor. Since moving into murder trials — he has 10 pending — Hammer has tried two cases and won convictions in both, although in one case, a co-defendant was cut free after jurors deadlocked. Deputy Public Defender Michael Burt, who opposed Hammer in one of the murder cases, said he was surprised how fast Hammer has risen in the office. “For someone to come up into the upper echelon of the office and [who] can work with police officers, judges and defense attorneys, and that quickly assimilate into this system, I’m impressed with that,” Burt said. “He is one of the best they have over there.” Defense attorney Brendan Conroy, who opposed Hammer in the other murder trial, calls him “quite good” but says Hammer takes “a much more emotional stance” than most prosecutors. “I guess it works,” Conroy said. “He got a second-degree murder conviction.” Iglehart, now an Alameda County, Calif., superior court judge, recalls Hammer as “smart and very ethical. … He always has been a moralist and knows the moral issues.” However, defense attorney Bill Fazio’s experience with Hammer in a recent preliminary hearing left him questioning Hammer’s ethics. According to Fazio, Hammer ran the names of defense witnesses from San Francisco’s Hunter’s Point neighborhood through police computers, leading to two arrests on traffic warrants. Fazio said it’s usually difficult to convince such witnesses to testify because they are distrustful of law enforcement. Running them through police computers intimidates them, he said. “It shows a certain amount of mean streak on his [Hammer's] part,” he said. I don’t know why he did that. It served no useful purpose.” Hammer’s explanation is that Fazio did not tell him in advance which witnesses would be called to testify. “What I ran them for was not warrants per se, but to see if anyone had a record,” he said. “When I hear a witness’s name for the first time, it would be malpractice not to see if there’s anything I should know to impeach him by if it involves moral turpitude.” Hammer later dismissed the murder charge against Fazio’s client, citing insufficient evidence. San Francisco Superior Court Judge Jerome Benson, who presided over the preliminary hearing, praised Hammer for early on deciding he had no case. “I thought Hammer handled the preliminary hearing in a commendable manner,” said the judge, a former prosecutor. “I thought it was an ethical call on his part.” The significance of the Hammer-Fazio dustup is that they could wind up as opponents in 2003 running for district attorney. Fazio already says he wants to make a third try for the office. Though in one interview Hammer didn’t rule out an eventual run for DA, he later said he has “absolutely no plans” to run for office. Although Hallinan has said he may run for a third term, the district attorney seems more than casually interested in running for mayor in 2003. Though his handling of the dog-mauling case will undoubtedly affect his political stock, Hammer says he’s not thinking about that. “Politics is the furthest thing from my mind when I’m in the middle of a murder case,” he said. “My only focus in this case and other cases I’ve prosecuted is to do justice.” “If anyone judges my career,” he said, “I hope they look at all my work.”

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