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DA leaves legacy of vital wins

Stanislaus County District Attorney James Brazelton tried 35 murder cases during his days as a prosecutor, won them all, and sent five men to death row.

He prides himself on being a hard-charging trial attorney and believes victims, grieving loved ones and the public are best served when hardened criminals go to prison for a long, long time.

And when the pressure was on, his office delivered a guilty verdict and death sentence for Scott Peterson, who was convicted last year of killing his wife and unborn son after a sensational investigation and trial.

Since then, Brazelton has crossed the nation, collecting awards from legal groups and giving talks about the case that was a regular feature on cable television news shows for two years.

Brazelton, 63, whose retirement from office becomes official today, says he's leaving on a high note.

But the tall, imposing man who often tacks an American flag to his lapel has traveled a rocky road, tangling with local politicians, a civil grand jury and the media alike.

"You just sometimes wonder if Jim doesn't enjoy the fight," said Modesto Police Chief Roy Wasden. "He fires things up."

A civil grand jury chastised Brazelton -- twice -- for inappropriate behavior in the prosecutor's office.

In reports released earlier this month and last summer, the panel said Brazelton created a hostile workplace because he simulated the drawing and firing of a gun, and later held a gun in the palm of his hand, while making derogatory comments about two Bee reporters.

Brazelton denied all of the claims.

In 1999, Brazelton faced public questions about his health and ability to lead from members of the Board of Supervisors.

They were worried because Brazelton's skin tone had fluctuated between ashen gray and yellow. Brazelton said he was overmedicated by a physician and has put his health issues behind him.

And during nine years at the helm of the prosecutor's office, Brazelton has never been able to get the money his office wanted from the cash-strapped county.

When the supervisors talked about "efficiencies," Brazelton told them he needed more money and more staff because "there is no price tag on justice."

DISTRICT ATTORNEY PLANNED RE-ELECTION

The top prosecutor routinely dismisses inquiries from The Bee, calling them nothing more than a witch hunt. He refused several requests for interviews for this article, but provided a written statement.

"I take pride in my career as the people's advocate and am humbled and honored by the faith shown by the public in electing me as their district attorney," he said.

In April, Brazelton announced he would be a candidate in a June 2006 primary, seeking a third full term in office. The news shocked courthouse insiders who assumed he would retire at the end of his term.

In June, Brazelton said was leaving to take a job with American Corrective Counseling Services Inc. of San Clemente, a firm that runs bad-check collection programs in 14 states.

Brazelton will be the executive vice president of client relationships, selling the firm's restitution program to local prosecutors.

When he announced his retirement, Brazelton said he would have been crazy to turn down a lucrative offer that came out of the blue and will pay him more than his $153,026 annual salary.

His new employer issued a press release about Brazelton, but was not available for further comment.

Assistant District Attorney Carol Shipley said she thinks Brazelton made his bid for re-election because he does not want to see Judge Michael Cummins take over the prosecutor's office.

Cummins took a leave of absence from the bench in March, when he announced his candidacy for the primary.

Shipley said Brazelton switched gears after he determined that Chief Deputy District Attorney Birgit Fladager might want his job. Fladager is set to formally announce her candidacy Monday.

"He felt that he could do a better job than Judge Cummins, who had declared that he would run, and he felt that he could win the election against Judge Cummins," Shipley said.

During a recent appearance on "Behind the Badge," a weekly radio call-in show on KFIV-AM, Brazelton said he is eager to get out from under the scrutiny of "The Moscow Bee" and grand jurors who are out in left field.

Apparently, he is sick of the spotlight that comes with elected office.

"I won't miss that at all," Brazelton said.

***

Brazelton graduated from high school in Bakersfield in 1957, at age 16, spent a year in junior college and enlisted in the Army, which made him a military policeman.

He was assigned to a security team on a presidential helicopter until he was discharged in 1962.

He went to work for the Bakersfield Police Department and moved on to the Orange Police Department in 1968, so he could attend night school at Western State College of Law in Anaheim.

He worked his way up through the ranks -- from patrol officer to detective, to watch commander, to SWAT team commander, to sergeant -- while earning bachelor's and law degrees.

Brazelton passed the State Bar exam in 1974 and worked in private practice in Southern California for 11 years.

He moved to Modesto in 1985, joined the district attorney's office and began another climb up the ranks.

Defense attorney Ernie Spokes, who worked in the prosecutor's office in the 1980s, said Brazelton quickly became known as the go-to guy for murder cases.

"He certainly was a role model," Spokes said. "Anybody that puts five people on death row is clearly an outstanding trial attorney."

Brazelton set his sights on the top job in 1993, when he and Assistant District Attorney Holly Berrett took out papers needed to declare one's candidacy for elected office.

Both of the prosecutors backed off when former District Attorney Donald Stahl said he would seek a sixth term.

Stahl was re-elected in November 1995, but a few months later he recommended that Brazelton fill his unfinished term. The Board of Supervisors agreed, making the appointment in March 1996.

Berrett died in a car accident a few months later.

Brazelton was re-elected in 1998 and 2002, running unopposed each time.

***

As the county's top prosecutor, Brazelton managed an $11.5 million budget and supervised 108 employees, including 45 trial attorneys who handle everything from criminal investigations to official misconduct.

His predecessor, Stahl, was known as a micromanager. Brazelton took a more laid-back approach.

Brazelton reviewed every murder and manslaughter case, but let deputies and their immediate supervisors determine what charges should be filed in less serious cases, and whether the office should go to trial or negotiate a plea.

Critics, like defense attorney Ramon Magaña, said Brazelton's approach had drawbacks.

He said Brazelton was like an absentee landlord, particularly in recent years, because he left the details to others, but never gave his administrators the authority to have the final say.

That, he said, led to confusion.

"Literally, people were wondering, 'Who's running the office today?' " Magaña said.

In his recent statement to The Bee, Brazelton said he is confident that his staff can carry on without him because he let them grow and mature on the job.

He also said he is particularly proud of the work he has done on behalf of the victims of crime.

During his tenure, the district attorney's office and other local agencies opened the CAIRE Center, a child-friendly place where officials can interview youngsters who have been the victims of crime.

The district attorney's office also joined community groups to build a rose garden on the courthouse lawn to remind the community about the heavy toll that violent crime takes on its victims.

Jacque MacDonald of Merced, whose daughter was found dead in her home in 1988, said Brazelton promised her that her daughter's killer would be found and prosecuted.

It took nine years, but Scott Avery Fizzell was eventually arrested in Arkansas, convicted in Modesto and sent to prison for 25 years to life.

"I believe that he has done his best, and that he has tried to speak for those who are unable to speak for themselves," said McDonald, who hosts a public access television show called "The Victim's Voice."

TOUGH APPROACH MOTIVATED BY VICTIMS

Shipley said Brazelton's tough-on-crime approach, and tendency to seek the maximum punishment allowed by law, was rooted in his concern for the victims of crime.

"He was always compassionate to the victims," she said.

In his statement, Brazelton noted that his office went for six straight years without losing a murder trial, from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s.

He also touted his office's conviction rate for felony trials, saying it is more than 90 percent in the last eight years.

According to the Judicial Council of California, which oversees the state's trial and appellate courts, overall felony conviction rates for the district attorney's office are far lower.

About half of the cases the district attorney's office filed between 1998-99 and 2002-03 were dismissed by prosecutors or by the court before a verdict could be reached.

In cases that ended in convictions or acquittals, the district attorney's office won guilty verdicts or negotiated guilty pleas more than half of the time.

The office never won more than two-thirds of its cases during the five-year time span.

Statewide, more than three-quarters of all felony cases reached verdicts, and three-quarters of those cases ended in convictions.

As the window closes on Brazelton's career in public service, the public is likely to remember the Peterson case and forget the rest.

Chief Probation Officer Jerry Powers said Brazelton should be remembered for the Peterson victory because he put together a prosecution team that confounded its critics and outwitted celebrity lawyer Mark Geragos.

He said Brazelton is blunt and straightforward, sometimes crossing swords with powerful people, often sharing opinions that other politicians would keep to themselves.

But love him or hate him, Brazelton knows how to win when the pressure is on.

"He's a prosecutor," Powers said. "That's how he became a district attorney, and that's how he's going out."

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