The following is a transcript of Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen’s speech delivered Jan. 23, 2019, at his swearing-in to a third term.
WE BEND THE ARC OF JUSTICE
In The Beginning
On my first day of work as a Deputy DA, I had what cops call “tunnel vision.” I woke up very early on Monday February 6, 1995, picked at my breakfast, kissed my wife Amber, and drove to 70 West Hedding Street. I wore my best suit—bright green and double breasted, with a red tie and cordovan penny loafers—think Miami Vice meets The Joker.
I arrived early, parked over there in the same C Lot and walked toward the West Wing of this building. It was so long ago that there were workers outside smoking, not marijuana, but cigarettes. They may have been chatting about the O.J. Simpson trial, which had just begun. I would not be trying any murder cases against Johnny Cochran. I was on the Misdemeanor Team.
And so, I raised my right hand, and took the oath of office to protect and defend the Constitution, the same oath I took a few moments ago. My goals back then were simple—do justice, win trials, don’t screw up. Not necessarily in that order.
As a young prosecutor, I thought I knew more than I did. I made mistakes and did stupid things. Once I struck counsel’s table with my thick hardcover penal code during my opening statement in a misdemeanor vandalism case to illustrate how the defendant pounded on the victim’s door. The problem was that the sound was so loud and jarring that the bailiff fell out of his chair, several jurors complained of ringing in their ears, and the judge took away my Penal Code. I lost the case.
Another time, I was walking to court and heard someone behind me say, “You called me a liar. I’m not a liar.” I turned around. It was a drunk driving defendant who I had convicted a few weeks earlier. He had testified and lied during the trial. We were going to the same courtroom for sentencing. Here’s what I did not do—ignore him and walk to court. Instead, I turned around, looked him in the eye, and said, “I called you a liar because you lied.” I was pretty fired up. However, in order to look him in the eye, I had to strain my neck up, because he was 6’5,” 280 pounds and a former professional football player. Before we could continue our “conversation,” one of my colleagues intervened and pulled me away, saving me from imminent harm.
In 1999, early in my career, I prosecuted my first Three Strikes case against a 24-year-old Defendant named Cuong Nguyen. The jury convicted him of check forgery, possession of stolen property, and running from the police. Previously, Mr. Nguyen had been convicted of check forgery, residential burglary, and attempted residential burglary. I strongly advocated for 27 years to life, which is the sentence the court imposed.
We’ll come back to the Three Strikes Law and Mr. Nguyen’s case in a few minutes. For now, I’ll say that for most of my career the only people I ever imagined myself speaking to about justice were in a courtroom—jurors and judges.
The Arc of Justice
In 1853, Theodore Parker, an abolitionist and Unitarian Church Minister, said, “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience [and] I am sure it bends toward justice.”
In 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., famously paraphrased Reverend Parker and said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
How does the arc of the moral universe bend toward justice? Is it simply the nature of the universe? Is it factors beyond our control? Who bends the arc? God alone? Does the arc bend itself? Let me be very clear. The arc does not bend itself. The universe does not bend it for us. Justice does not naturally happen. Justice comes from purposeful action, perseverance and a caring heart. The arc is malleable, like hot metal. It is in our hands, like blacksmiths, to pound it, to shape it. We bend the arc.
Today, I’d like to speak about the arc of criminal justice in our society, in this DA’s Office, and in some of our exemplary prosecutions.
We Bend The Arc With New Laws
As a society, we bend the arc toward justice by making new laws.
In 2012, 14 years into Coung Nguyen’s life prison sentence, the Three Strikes Reform Act, Proposition 36, appeared on the California ballot. Prop 36 narrowed the application of the Three Strikes law to serious and violent criminals. While most offenders serving life sentences under the Three Strikes Law had committed three or more violent offenses, thousands had not, including Mr. Nguyen. I was proud to be one of three elected DAs out of 58 to support reforming the Three Strikes Law. The voters agreed. In 2013, Mr. Nguyen was released from prison and has been crime free since, as have the overwhelming number of inmates released under Prop 36.
In 2014, I supported Proposition 47 which reclassified drug possession and low-level theft crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. I was one of only two DAs in California to support this reform, which voters overwhelmingly passed. One reason I supported Prop 47 was a conversation I had with my late father, Morrie, of blessed memory. I asked him if the company where he worked would hire a “convicted felon.” He said, “no way.” I asked him what came to his mind when he heard “convicted felon.” He said, a rapist, murderer or gangster. I said, what about a drug addict or shoplifter. He thought those were misdemeanors, and his company would hire them.
Bending the arc means holding offenders accountable but allowing most of them a way back into our community. This simple reform has made it easier for tens of thousands of Californians to successfully reintegrate back into our society and find jobs, housing and educational opportunities.
Last year, I worked with Gov. Jerry Brown, state Sen. Bob Hertzberg, and community groups to pass Senate Bill 10 which gets rid of money bail. Basing a defendant’s pretrial release on whether he could make a certain bail amount was both bad for public safety and unfair. The old system punished poor, non-violent individuals by unnecessarily holding them in custody which costs taxpayers millions of dollars a year. At the same time, wealthier violent offenders paid high bail amounts, were released and then terrorized more victims, especially in cases of domestic violence.
We were asking the wrong question—how much money does a defendant have? Now, we will ask the right question: Is this person safe to release from jail before trial? If the answer is yes, he will be released and supervised, no matter how poor. If the answer is no, this person is dangerous, he will be held in jail no matter how rich. Getting rid of bail and asking the right question bends the arc toward a safer and more just California.
We Bend The Arc With Widely Emulated Office Policies
We bend the arc toward justice through innovative office policies that have been widely influential and emulated. Our Conviction Integrity Unit, led by David Angel, has ensured that our convictions are obtained with the highest ethical standards. We protect defendant’s rights, even as we justly prosecute them. We have led the way with Open File and expedited discovery to defense attorneys, as well as a double-blind eyewitness ID protocol which is a national model.
Moreover, our Collateral Consequences policy which includes immigration consequences in plea negotiations was the first of its kind in the nation, and subsequently ratified by the United States Supreme Court. We have worked with defense attorneys and Innocence Projects to exonerate wrongfully convicted individuals.
When we began our Conviction Integrity Unit several years ago, we were one of only two prosecutors’ offices in the country to have such units. Today, there are dozens of conviction integrity units, most modeled after ours.
Bending the arc means doing everything we can to help crime victims get back on their feet and on with their lives. Our Victim Services Unit, led by Kacey Halcon, supports crime victims during court proceedings and has helped thousands of victims get counseling, restitution, and shelter.
Our Cold Case Unit, has used cutting edge DNA technology supplied by our crime laboratory to solve several old murder cases, including two from the 1970s. We never forget murder victims and their families, and we will never stop bringing their killers to justice. No matter how long it takes, we will bend the arc toward justice.
Marissa McKeown leads our Crime Strategies Unit, which uses data collected from DA files and police records from all over our county, to help identify, arrest and prosecute violent robbery, burglary and carjacking crews. This collaboration between police departments and our office is bending the arc by more efficiently using our finite resources to catch and deter dangerous criminals.
A diverse office that reflects the community it serves bends the arc. When I joined the Misdemeanor Team in 1995, we were eight men, no women. I have always believed that great prosecutors come in all races, ethnicities, genders, and religions. Today, for the first time, half of our Supervisors and Managers are women, along with half of the prosecutors in our Office. Moreover, 40 percent of our prosecutors are African American, Asian American, Latino, or gay.
The arc is a rainbow.
Prosecuting Those Who Have Broken The Law, Bends The Arc
Every successful criminal prosecution is its own small force, a fulcrum of justice. These four prosecutions powerfully bent the arc.
Sierra LaMar was a 15-year-old Morgan Hill teenager who was kidnapped one morning while walking to her school bus stop and then murdered by Antolin Garcia-Torres. An extensive investigation by many law enforcement agencies, including the Sheriff’s Department, Morgan Hill Police Department and District Attorney Bureau of Investigations revealed that Garcia-Torres had previously tried to carjack and kidnap three other women. Deputy DAs David Boyd and Dana Veazey used every scrap of evidence to construct a strong case that led to the defendant’s conviction on all counts and life sentence.
The DA’s Office has a unique and critical role in safeguarding the public’s trust in our democratic institutions and holding public officials accountable for misconduct. Former county Supervisor George Shirakawa stole public money, lied on financial disclosure forms, and sent out false, defamatory and illegal campaign mailers against his political enemies. Karyn Sinunu-Towery and John Chase, head of our Public Integrity Unit, led the prosecution against Shirakawa which resulted in his conviction, removal from office, and long jail sentence.
Thousands of years ago, the Roman poet Juvenal asked, “Who will guard the guards?” Michael Tyree was a slight, mentally ill man who was in jail related to probation for his misdemeanor crimes. Late one night, three jail guards beat and stomped him so viciously that they ruptured his liver and spleen. They then turned out the lights and closed the door to Mr. Tyree’s jail cell. A few minutes later, he died alone, in pain, in the dark. It is extremely rare that jail guards are successfully prosecuted for anything, much less murder. Nonetheless, Deputy DA Matt Braker prosecuted and convicted the jail guards of murder. They are serving life sentences in prison.
Their conviction led to a Blue-Ribbon Commission, and significant reforms in how our jail is operated, including civilian oversight.
Who will guard the guards? We did. We are. We will.
In an extremely difficult and challenging case, Deputy DA Alaleh Kianerci, through hard work and prosecutorial excellence, persuaded a Palo Alto jury to convict Stanford student Brock Turner of raping an unconscious young woman behind a dumpster. At the sentencing hearing, the victim, Emily Doe, read a letter she composed to the judge explaining the devastating impact of the assault and Turner’s lack of remorse. DDA Kianerci urged the court to impose a long prison sentence. Instead, the judge gave Turner a short jail sentence.
We released Emily’s letter hoping that the local newspaper might attach it to their story and perhaps a few hundred people, maybe even a few sexual assault survivors, would read the letter and find their strength and their voice.
Within days, millions of people around the world had read the letter, and demanded that the arc bend. Months later, Alaleh and I persuaded the California legislature to change the law and guarantee that the next Brock Turner go to prison. Then, our office, led by Terry Harman, signed a groundbreaking MOU with all the colleges and universities in our County to prevent future campus sexual assaults by working with law enforcement, encouraging upstanders and raising the status of women. Moreover, led by county Supervisor Cindy Chavez and our entire Board of Supervisors, we are testing rape kits faster than ever before.
A teenage girl gets on a bus and goes to school. An elected official helps his community. Jail guards protect an inmate. A young man makes sure a woman gets safely back to her dorm room. We will never know the cumulative effect of these four successful prosecutions. What we do know is that they, along with thousands of successful prosecutions each year that make no headlines, powerfully bend the arc toward justice.
How Do We Know The Arc Is Bending
How do we know the arc is bending toward justice? Sometimes, we can’t tell because we are trapped in the present and “our eyes reach but little ways.” This is painfully true as I strain to read text messages from my daughters. If only justice had a bigger font size. However, the arc is bending and things are getting better, even if we can’t always see it.
Crime rates in California are less than half of what they were in the 1980s and 1990s which had soaring homicide rates and drug wars. In 1981, there were 72 murders in San Jose, which then had a population of about 630,000 people. Last year in San Jose, with a population of almost 1.1 million, there were 27 murders—still 27 too many—but a murder rate 79 percent lower than in 1981. Such a steep decline is a tribute to the longstanding excellence of the SJPD.
While crime is about as low as it has ever been, it is not low enough. Through our individual and collective efforts, we have bent the arc toward justice, but we have not “completed the figure.”
My Vision Of Justice
My eyesight will never reach as far as the end of the arc of justice, but I have a vision of what it might look like. My vision of justice is based upon respecting victims and defendants, making victims whole, and holding defendants accountable. My vision of justice is based upon jails and prisons providing meaningful opportunities for individuals to rehabilitate themselves and become productive, law- abiding members of society. My vision of justice is based upon a strong bridge of trust between law enforcement and the communities we serve.
While my vision of justice is multi-colored, the palette contains a lot of blue. I’m not talking politics. I’m talking police officers. Every police department in our county and almost every police department in our state has fewer officers now than before the Great Recession in 2008.
Police officers bend the arc every day and more excellent police officers, like those in our county, will bend the arc faster and more completely toward justice.
The city of San Jose has the lowest police staffing of any large city in the United States. Today, SJPD, the largest police department in our county has 350 fewer officers than in 2010. To give you an idea of how significant that is, a police department with 350 officers would be the second largest police department in our County. Three-hundred-and-fifty officers is more than the size of the police departments of Gilroy, Morgan Hill, Palo Alto, Los Gatos, Campbell, and Los Altos combined.
Justice does not work without patrol cars and officers. Reverend Parker was talking about slavery when he evoked the bending of the arc. Martin Luther King Jr. was talking about civil rights. Both of them were talking about freedom. Freedom from violence, from fear, and from chaos. These are freedoms that brave and dedicated police officers safeguard for us every day.
When it comes to achieving full and complete justice for everyone, perhaps we are in the position of Moses who God showed the Promised Land, but would not let enter. We can see where we need to go to achieve justice, but we may not make it a reality for years.
However, as the sages taught, while we are not required to complete the task, to fully and completely bend the arc, we are obligated to do everything we can to succeed. For the day is short, the work is difficult, but the reward is great, and we are called to achieve.
Through the efforts of those who came before us, we are closer to bending the arc and entering the Promised Land of Justice. George Kennedy, the wise and plain spoken DA who hired the guy with the bright green double-breasted suit, built a strong foundation that aimed this Office toward justice.
Today, with more than 650 prosecutors, investigators, support staffers and criminalists, this District Attorney’s Office, through service, hard work, transparency and integrity, has brought us to the apex of the arc.
A few days ago, I swore in 12 new prosecutors. Ask them to stand. I imagined they slept poorly the night before, and picked at their breakfasts. They arrived early for work and were dressed impeccably. I asked them to raise their right hands, swear the oath of office, swear to protect and defend the Constitution, swear to do everything in their power, to the best of their abilities, to bend the arc toward justice for everyone. As I looked in their eyes, I saw the arc bending.
From strength to strength, from generation to generation, we bend the arc.