Editorials

DA’s office in turmoil, time for fresh start

FILE PHOTO -- Deputy District Attorney John R. Mayne, right, and District Attorney Birgit Fladager walk toward a courtroom in the Stanislaus Superior Court in Modesto, Calif., on Tuesday, November 15, 2016. Mayne is challenging Fladager for her job in the Nov. 6, 2018, election.
FILE PHOTO -- Deputy District Attorney John R. Mayne, right, and District Attorney Birgit Fladager walk toward a courtroom in the Stanislaus Superior Court in Modesto, Calif., on Tuesday, November 15, 2016. Mayne is challenging Fladager for her job in the Nov. 6, 2018, election. aalfaro@modbee.com

Clarification: Stanislaus County District Attorney Birgit Fladager pointed out that judges and technological problems contributed to those delays (true), and since January of 2017 more than 50 homicide cases have been closed. The story below has been updated with the correct information.

If it sounds like a lot of people are picking on Stanislaus County District Attorney Birgit Fladager, rest assured they are. Unfortunately, she has brought a lot of those attacks on herself.

Fladager is facing the most serious challenge to her 12-year tenure as DA – and it’s coming from all sides.

From within her office, Deputy DA John R. Mayne says he can do the job better.

Defense attorney Patrick Kolasinski started running over a year ago, inspired by stories that justice here doesn’t move quickly enough – serving both defendants and victims poorly.

Steven O’Connor jumped in more recently, mainly because he appears angry the DA brought charges against fellow defense attorney “Mr. Frank Carson.”

The Bee does not believe Fladager is as awful as her critics paint her. But we do believe it’s time to give the office a fresh start. Voters will narrow this four-person field to two candidates on June 5 (assuming no one gets 50 percent), and those two candidates should be John Mayne and Patrick Kolasinski.

Let’s start with the Carson case, which – after 18 months of preliminary hearings, the longest in county (and perhaps state) history – finally went to trial earlier in April. Carson, who challenged Fladager for her job in 2014, is accused of plotting the murder of a man he believed was stealing metal from his property. Two brothers from Turlock are charged with carrying out the murder.

Originally, Carson’s wife and her daughter were also charged, but those charges were tossed and they’re now suing Stanislaus County in federal court. A murder charge against a California Highway Patrol officer also was dropped, though he will stand trial on other charges.

That was O’Connor’s big, big issue. On four other questions, his response included the phrase, “I agree with John.” Perhaps, then, he should simply endorse Mayne and drop out.

It is the systemic problems in the DA’s office that we find most troubling. Mayne said the entire department is “roiled” by an incredibly high turnover rate; that it’s being mismanaged, and the work environment is toxic. Fladager blamed turnover on poor pay and said other Stanislaus County public agencies suffer the same fate.

Kolasinski said he was inspired to run by the 2015 report by The Bee’s Garth Stapley that showed the backlog of Stanislaus murder trials was the worst in the state. Fladager pointed out that judges and technological problems contributed to those delays (true), and since January of 2017 more than 50 homicide cases have been closed. But Kolasinski didn’t like that either, saying some were closed too fast in favor of the criminals – a jarring statement from a defense attorney.

The Bee asked about creating greater transparency – the subject of a study by Stanford Law School professor David Alan Sklansky. He recommended making a host of statistics and policies available to the public – including cost-per-conviction, conviction and recidivism rates and discovery rules. Fladager insisted her department is working “really well,” handling some 13,000 cases annually. But said some statistics couldn’t be easily parsed.

Kolasinski, who once created a software start-up, disagreed, saying most data sets can be easily parsed.

Then he proposed something radical – that police body-cam video be released within 48 hours of an incident, absent extreme circumstances. Mayne and Fladager both called that unworkable.

Mayne critiqued the department’s budget, saying money has been spent frivolously. Kolasinski said he would ask the county to double the budget to $40 million a year, properly funding “the county’s largest law firm.”

Three election cycles back, Mayne drove a truck carrying candidate Fladager in a parade. Now he insists the DA’s office cannot be fixed without sweeping new leadership. Kolasinski says the DA’s office suffers from a crisis in both leadership and management, and needs help from someone who understands the private sector.

That’s a debate we’d like to hear more of in November – from John Mayne and Patrick Kolasinski.

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