Defense attorney to challenge Stanislaus County DA in June election

11/19/2013 12:55 PM

11/20/2013 9:36 PM

Modesto criminal defense attorney Frank Carson says the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office is in chaos, and he can do a better job of running the place.

Carson said Tuesday that he will run in next year’s election to become the county’s next top prosecutor, challenging District Attorney Birgit Fladager. The defense attorney, a staunch critic of the District Attorney’s Office, says he wants to restore integrity to an office that he said has been marred by personal politics and low morale.

“I am dedicated to bringing change and restoring order to an office in chaos,” Carson said in a news release announcing his candidacy. “As a businessman, I will bring better management of scarce resources. My experience as an attorney will be invaluable to better evaluate cases and their prosecution.”

Fladager said she will seek re-election in June, and that her challenger’s allegations are false. She says she has a supportive staff that works hard every day to seek justice despite, for example, challenges such as staff shortages, pay cuts and the unexpected deaths of three prosecutors.

“I am aware of the criticisms lodged by Mr. Carson in his announcement of his intent to run for office; they are baseless and wholly inaccurate,” Fladager said in an e-mail to The Bee. “They only go to show how little he understands or appreciates the quality personnel and work product of the District Attorney’s Office.”

She said the economic outlook is improving, and she has a new crop of prosecutors. Fladager also wants to work on making more improvements to the Stanislaus Family Justice Center, which is dedicated to helping victims of child abuse and domestic violence.

The two-term district attorney won re-election in June 2010; she was unopposed. Now facing a challenger, Fladager said she plans on mounting a full campaign and getting her message out to voters.

“I’m looking forward to pick up where we left off,” Fladager said about the possibility of a third term in office.

Carson, who has not held public office before, said the county needs a district attorney with a fresh perspective. He has a reputation for being a contentious advocate for his clients, and he has been reprimanded for his behavior in court.

In April, Superior Court Judge Linda McFadden fined Carson $200 after a discussion over the scheduling of a murder trial escalated into a shouting match. The judge told Carson he was acting unprofessionally, and the attorney said the judge was being disrespectful.

He’s also known for representing defendants in numerous high-profile criminal cases, most recently a murder trial involving three defendants involved in a Riverbank carjacking.

Carson’s client, a teenage boy at the time of the shooting, was acquitted of all charges including enhancements of acting on behalf of a street gang. The two other defendants were convicted of murder.

The defense attorney said the problems at the District Attorney’s Office are not getting any better, pointing to a recent dispute between Fladager and Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge John Freeland.

Fladager has said Freeland had upset her prosecutors for too long, so she ordered them to reject Freeland in all new criminal matters, an attorney’s right exercised only when cases begin.

Some legal opponents were outraged when Fladager’s stance against Freeland seemed to persuade the presiding judge to reassign him away from criminal cases. Carson said Fladager ordering her prosecutors to boycott Freeland is her “latest insult to justice.”

“I think it’s terrible. She’s a bully,” Carson said about Fladager’s dispute with Freeland. If elected, Carson said, “We’re not going to be threatening judges.”

Fladager said both sides have a right to challenge a judge’s assignment on a case, a legal maneuver used more often by defense attorneys. She said it was a decision she doesn’t take lightly.

“I’m an aggressive but very thoughtful prosecutor,” Fladager said.

Presiding Judge Loretta Murphy Begen later reversed her decision, allowing Freeland to continue handling criminal cases. The reversal was done in the court’s best interest, according to Begen.

The district attorney has refused to discuss specifics about her concerns with Freeland, but she told The Bee on Tuesday that “it was his competency in handling criminal matters.” She said her prosecutors will continue to “paper,” or disqualify, the judge, and they have moved about 40 cases out of Freeland’s courtroom.

Fladager said she didn’t want it to get to this point when she raised her concerns to court officials last year. The district attorney suggested that Freeland could benefit from some mentoring or judicial training to handle criminal cases, but Fladager said she didn’t see any improvement.

She said Freeland “was simply not getting it,” and his performance was negatively affecting the prosecutors’ ability to serve victims.

Court Executive Officer Rebecca Fleming said Tuesday that Begen and Freeland won’t directly comment on the issue.

Fleming doesn’t characterize the issue as a “dispute” between the court and the district attorney. She said the presiding judge simply decided not to move Freeland to juvenile court, and prosecutors have a legal right to move their cases to different courtrooms.

Nevertheless, Carson said, Fladager’s threats against Freeland have produced a negative effect on the other judges and defendants. The other judges will feel intimidated into favoring Fladager’s prosecutors, he said, and defendants will think they can’t get a fair trial as prosecutors go “judge-shopping.”

The defense attorney says Fladager has been more interested in pushing forward her political agenda.

“Public safety will come first under my watch,” Carson said in the news release. “Currently, the attention to public safety is taking a back seat to the politics of personality.”

The district attorney said it’s not a political agenda but a public safety agenda she’s pushing.

“Our No. 1 priority is ensuring public safety and protecting crime victims,” Fladager said. “I have a great staff that supports that mission, and I am extremely proud of every one of them.”

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