By PAUL PAYNE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
When Jill Ravitch bellied up to the prosecution table in the Jarrod Miller murder trial, she became the first sitting Sonoma County
district attorney in three decades to take a case before a jury.
The last time a top prosecutor stepped away from administrative duties and into the trenches was sometime in the early 1980s, when the late Gene Tunney tried someone for robbery.
Since then, other district attorneys have found the complexities of the job too much for courtroom forays. Balancing a $20 million budget and managing a staff of more than 100 employees is time-consuming. Four-year election cycles require near-constant campaigning.
Ravitch said she made time for it in part to fulfill an election promise, but also to serve as a role model for newer prosecutors. Her efforts paid off last week when jurors returned a first-degree murder conviction against Miller.
“I think going into the courtroom and trying a case is beneficial to the whole office,” Ravitch said in the hallway, moments after jurors delivered the Miller verdict. “Many people came to watch. It also supports my philosophy that managers need to go to court.”
While some attorneys accused Ravitch of grandstanding or pulling a political stunt, others said it was refreshing to see the county’s chief law enforcement officer roll up her sleeves and do something other than attending meetings or giving speeches.
Going to trial keeps Ravitch tuned into the realities faced by her prosecutors while exposing her to the concerns of voters who are called to court for jury duty, said Andy Martinez, a longtime criminal defense attorney.
“It keeps her in touch with the people who are going to be hearing her deputies’ cases,” said Martinez, a former Sonoma County prosecutor. “I think it’s a good thing.”
Another Santa Rosa criminal lawyer, Jack Montgomery, agreed it’s important for policymakers to experience firsthand the things they ask others to do.
“I think it’s marvelous,” Montgomery said. “It’s certainly a rarity.”
One of Ravitch’s staunchest supporters, Santa Rosa defense attorney Chris Andrian, said Ravitch is the first district attorney in years with significant trial experience.
He described her as a “trial junkie” who can’t resist entering the courtroom fray.
The decision has advantages and disadvantages, he said. On the plus side, “you have your best lawyer in there,” Andrian said. The downside, he said, is that it takes away from her ability to run her office.
“You can’t do anything else,” Andrian said. “She’s burning the candle at both ends. When you’re in trial, it’s a full-time, seven-day-a-week job. I respect the fact that she did it, though.”
Courthouse watchers agree Tunney was the last sitting district attorney to take a case to trial. He won a conviction and never returned to the courtroom, apparently finding it too distracting.
His successors, Mike Mullins and Stephan Passalacqua, never attempted any cases while in office.
“I made a conscious decision that I didn’t think I could do it,” said Mullins, also considered a skilled litigator, who was district attorney from 1994-2002. “It’s great for morale and to remember what it’s like to be back in the hot seat. But there are other things you might simply have to neglect.”
Statewide, it’s not unheard of for top prosecutors to try cases. It happens mostly in smaller counties, but the former Alameda County head recently won his case against an accused cop killer. In neighboring Marin County, District Attorney Ed Berberian is in the midst of a multi-defendant Novato murder trial.
Ravitch’s feat was aided by her co-counsel in the Miller case, Scott Jamar. She said she prepared on weekends and court holidays, keeping on top of daily management duties.
Other than suspending a few weekly meetings, nothing was neglected, she said.
“I was amazed how she was able to juggle it all,” Assistant District Attorney Christine Cook said. “Nothing was put off during trial.”
Ravitch said she chose the Miller case because it was the first homicide after she took office last year that wasn’t already assigned to someone. She dismissed any notion that she was show-boating, saying her goal was only to be a mentor.
“I did what I said I was going to do,” Ravitch said. “I put managers back in the courtroom, including myself.”
It was her first trial in two years and she was nervous about making her opening statement — a fact she shared with deputy prosecutors.
But she forged ahead. She examined key witnesses, presented evidence and gave the closing argument with a contingent of staff attorneys looking on from the audience.
Just when she’ll do it again is unclear. The budget, personnel matters and policy issues such as court re-alignment beckon for now.
“I hope I can go back in the courtroom,” Ravitch said. “We are a law firm. We are primarily attorneys who practice the law. That’s what we’re doing here.”
You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or firstname.lastname@example.org