s
s
Sections
Sections
Search
Subscribe

Andy Lopez case key to D.A. race


Intense scrutiny is focused on Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch this election season as she makes a bid for a second term in office.

The county's top law enforcement officer must decide whether to bring criminal charges against a veteran Sonoma County sheriff's deputy who shot and killed a 13-year-old Santa Rosa boy last fall after reportedly mistaking a BB gun he was carrying for an AK-47 rifle.

Like no other active case, the killing of Andy Lopez has polarized the county's half-million residents, leading to protest marches and calls for civilian police oversight. It's focused keen interest in the county's criminal justice system, raising questions about accountability and fairness.

But a local political analyst said the attention is not likely to cost Ravitch as she faces a challenge from a political novice, Deputy District Attorney Victoria Shanahan. Ravitch, a respected trial attorney first elected in 2010, enjoys widespread community support and superior financial resources.

"All things being equal, the incumbent wins," said David McCuan, a political science professor at Sonoma State University. "But the degree to which voters write in 'Andy Lopez' illustrates their frustration."

Ravitch has refused to state how long she will take to decide whether to charge Lopez's shooter, Deputy Erick Gelhaus. She acknowledged the Lopez killing has "marked our community in ways I haven't seen since I came here 24 years ago."

"All of us have a responsibility in trying to address the pain we feel and to work through it," Ravitch said. "But I have to separate that from my job as district attorney. My job is to determine if criminal conduct occurred."

The issue has emerged as a key campaign topic and source of disagreement.

Shanahan, who wants changes in the way the county investigates officer-involved shootings, criticized her boss of the last 3-1/2 years for not handing off the case to the state attorney general. She said Ravitch has a conflict of interest because she is a political ally of Sheriff Steve Freitas, who also is running for re-election. Ravitch denies the claim.

Shanahan says future incidents should be investigated by sworn district attorney staff members rather than an alternating slate of police agencies, as called for under the current county protocol. Ravitch is opposed to the idea, saying in a recent debate her office lacks the resources to take on the complicated investigations.

Ravitch has chastised Shanahan for mentioning Lopez in her campaign, calling it "shameful." Her supporters say Shanahan would need to recuse herself from all officer-involved incidents if she were elected because her husband is a sheriff's deputy, assigned to patrol.

Shanahan bristles at the suggestion.

"If I were a man and married to a woman cop, somehow I don't think it would be a problem," Shanahan said. "There's a perception that my husband dictates my decision-making process. I'm an independent thinker."

The two registered Democrats each said they support some type of community oversight, although Ravitch said questions remain about who would appoint members to any panel and what the scope of such a group would be.

Shanahan said she wants a criminal grand jury to look at "close-call" officer-related deaths, and she urges changes to current policy that allows the police department being investigated to suggest changes to the district attorney's final report before it is announced to the public.

The race pits a political neophyte against a veteran who is in her third race for district attorney.

Ravitch, 55, of Sebastopol, has spent most of her career as a prosecutor. After a brief stint with the Alameda County District Attorney's Office, she joined the Sonoma County District Attorney's Office in 1989 and quickly established herself as a top trial attorney.

She racked up a string of convictions over 15 years and supported her co-worker, Stephan Passalacqua, when he ran against then-District Attorney Mike Mullins in 2002. But she became disenchanted with Passalacqua's management style and quit for private practice in 2004. She tried her hand at criminal defense and civil law before challenging Passalacqua in 2006.

She joined the race late, was criticized for her lack of management experience and was defeated. In 2008, Ravitch returned to her prosecutor roots, accepting a supervisory position with the Mendocino County District Attorney's Office. As third-in-command, she managed 15 deputies and oversaw prosecution of violent crimes.

Ravitch took another shot at Passalacqua's job in 2010, winning with 55 percent of the vote.

Shanahan, 45, of Cloverdale, graduated from Sonoma State University with a degree in environmental studies and had a short career as a chemist at Net Pacific Inc. before attending Empire College School of Law, graduating in 2001.

She was hired by the late Mendocino County District Attorney Norm Vroman in 2002 and handled a broad range of cases before being promoted to management.

Shanahan left in 2007 when Passalacqua offered her a job in Sonoma County, where she was assigned to domestic violence, sexual assault and vehicular homicide cases. She prosecuted Windsor resident Ryan Karr, who killed five family members in a fiery rear-end crash on Highway 101 in 2007. He was convicted by a jury and sentenced to four years in prison.

She was later transferred to the gang unit, where she handled the prosecution of Fernando Mendoza, charged with the 2009 slaying of rival Luis Suarez on a Santa Rosa street. Mendoza was convicted after a five-week trial and sentenced to life behind bars.

Shanahan said she decided to run against Ravitch after she and other senior prosecutors brought a list of criticisms to the boss's attention and were ignored.

Among their concerns were Ravitch's disbanding of a dedicated homicide team Shanahan said has resulted in lighter punishments for killers. Also, she said Ravitch has failed to establish policies on things like marijuana prosecution, flooding the courts with low-level offenders and creating chaos in the office.

And she said Ravitch has kept voters in the dark about her performance despite hammering Passalacqua over his conviction rates in her own campaign.

"I want to hold her accountable for her promises," said Shanahan. "She's been telling the public that everything is fine. The reality is, it's not."

Shanahan said the feeling is shared by rank-and-file law enforcement officers who must work closely with prosecutors. Neither the Sonoma County Deputy Sheriff's Association nor the Santa Rosa Police Officers Association is endorsing a candidate this year.

Also, many criminal attorneys are abandoning Ravitch for Shanahan, who is seen as less experienced but more even-tempered and capable.

"It's one thing to be an excellent trial prosecutor," said Santa Rosa defense attorney Roy Miller, who supported Ravitch in 2010 but is switching his vote to Shanahan. "It's another thing to be an excellent manager. Not everybody has that skill set."

Ravitch countered that she has a good relationship with police, who she said rarely endorse a candidate. She discontinued the homicide team to deal with a backlog of other felony cases and focuses marijuana prosecution on major trafficking and money laundering operations.

Prosecutor Brian Staebell, who has worked under three district attorneys, said Ravitch is doing a good job, despite the naysayers.

"It's very easy to point fingers and say it's broken when in reality, it's just a very difficult thing to manage," Staebell said.

And Ravitch said she's winning cases. After declining to release conviction rate statistics for the past 2-1/2 years, Ravitch announced at a candidates' forum last week that she recently discovered one of her managers was keeping a tally of last year's felony trials.

Her conviction rate was 90 percent, she said.

"We are getting outstanding results in the courtroom," Ravitch said.

Critics accused Ravitch of using fuzzy math. According to Ravitch, of the 40 felony jury trials last year, her office won 27 convictions and suffered three acquittals. The remaining 10 mistrials should not factor into the rate, she said.

But her real conviction rate appears to be around 68 percent, said retired Sonoma County prosecutor Greg Jacobs. The performance reflects failed charging policies and outmatched trial attorneys, he said.

"The point is, she didn't keep track of it herself," said Jacobs, who was Ravitch's supervisor during his 35 years on the job. "That's pretty lame."

But Ravitch said justice isn't measured by conviction rates alone, although she's installing a new $2 million case management system to track such statistics. Her office participates in pre-trial diversion programs aimed at keeping people from re-offending and getting them off drugs.

"You have to back away from the win-loss argument," she said. "Statistics are always subject to interpretation. And they are only as good as the data they come from."

Ravitch, who became the first woman to hold the office, pointed to other achievements.

The respected trial lawyer claims she beefed up prosecution of drunken drivers and elder abusers, while providing enhanced victim services at the new Family Justice Center, which opened after years of planning in 2011.

Her tenure came during difficult budget times in which she says she maintained staffing levels, in part by obtaining government grants. Her first term also unfolded as the state embarked on its plan to reduce prison overcrowding by shifting responsibility for thousands of parolees to counties.

At the same time, Ravitch says she lived up to a campaign goal of putting managers back in the courtroom. With assistance from a senior prosecutor, she tried a murder case to conviction in 2012 while balancing administrative duties and political obligations. Among her supporters are all members of the Board of Supervisors and the county's law enforcement managers.

She is handily winning the money race, raising $98,000 from supporters through March 17, compared to $30,000 raised by Shanahan in the same period, according to campaign finance reports.

Former Sonoma County prosecutor and longtime supporter Julia Freis called Ravitch "hard-wired for justice."

"Our elected district attorney is required to make some very difficult decisions," Freis said. "I can't think of anyone I would trust more to make those decisions with intelligence and compassion than Jill."