Thursday, April 8, 2010

My Big Mouth

 by Robin Sax

I went to law school because I knew I wanted to use my voice to help others, as well as to express myself. I saw the law as a way to get my voice heard.

Unfortunately, I was really miserable during my first year of law school. I hated every minute of my studies and was terrified that I was going to be forever in debt for a career that wasn’t right for me. But one spring day during my first year of law school, everything shifted for me. It was a Saturday, with only a month of classes left. I was arguing Fourth Amendment Search and Seizure in a moot court presentation to a mock panel of appellate lawyers. They grilled me on the law, questioned my analogies, and forced me to think on my feet.

As I was arguing my position, I realized I was actually enjoying myself. I was opinionated and passionate, and everyone was actually listening to my ideas. I realized that not only could I do good work as a lawyer, but it could actually be fun and fulfilling.

My second and third years flew by. Now I knew I was going to be a trial lawyer! I wanted to see the inside of a courtroom and stand up for justice for the underdog or victim. I decided to become a prosecutor. Then I could do the two things I love — educate and advocate. Even better, I could remain committed to always doing “the right thing.” Every decision I made revolved around one central question: “Is what I am doing in this case, with this defendant, in the best interest of the people I represent?”

I began working for the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office in 1999. Although I received a great deal of satisfaction handling each of my cases, eventually I wanted to seek justice in other lawyers’ cases, in other cities, counties, and countries. Each and every day in court, I watched the wheels of justice move at pace slower than molasses in winter.  I would listen to arguments in court and feel some frustration. I saw things that seemed unjust and unfair. 

As a prosecutor, though, I could not speak out on cases being prosecuted in Los Angeles; I could only discuss cases in other jurisdictions. In order to make sense of what I was observing in Los Angeles, I began examining sexual assault and abuse cases around the country. I looked at best practices and missed opportunities to help me understand the victims I was working with. 

What shocked me most was how many cases were filled with mistakes, injustices, and plain old mediocre work. It was tough to sit in court and watch these injustices happen day in and day out. So, I thought, “Well, Robin, don’t just think about it, do something!” I did. I began writing, teaching, and advocating.  As I did this, I was always mindful of my responsibilities and duties as a representative of the Los Angeles County DA’s Office.

As I was contemplating writing a book about the inner workings of the system (which I later did), I was assigned the case of Thomas Beltran.  Beltran was a 30-year veteran Lincoln Middle School teacher from Santa Monica who sexually assaulted a large number of his female junior high students.  While the case became an example of best practices (in terms of the sexual assault investigation and coordinated efforts between law enforcement, prosecutors, social workers, etc.), it also presented one of the saddest examples I'd seen of modern-day parents-gone-bad. 

Beltran was arrested on a Friday. Through the course of that weekend, top notch Santa Monica Police Department detectives and I worked together. They interviewed a number of teenagers who came forward, contained the classroom, secured the defendant's whereabouts, and obtained his confession to committing all acts with all victims.

As disturbing as the case was, the silver lining was that Thomas Beltran took responsibility early. He confessed both in interview and via lie detector. But that Monday, during a town-hall meeting at Lincoln Middle School, I witnessed parents standing up for him. I heard murmurs of “he’s not guilty,” and cries that the victims weren't telling the truth.  I couldn't believe this.  In my mind, I thought there were only one of two possibilities: Either these parents were the cruelest I have ever seen, or they were the most naïve parents I have ever seen.  I preferred Option Two.  

Yet it dawned on me that if the default response of these parents was to doubt the victim, what would happen if their own kids came to them?  It was then that I knew I needed to use my experiences to educate and speak out instead of processing justice one case, one victim at a time. Armed with that story, I convinced Prometheus Books to allow me to write Predators and Child Molesters: A Sex Crimes DA Answers 100 of the Most-Asked Questions.

In February 2009, two months before the release of that book, I delivered notice to the DA's Office that I wanted to resign. Though it was a difficult decision, I wanted to pursue a career in the media.  After my experience with the Beltran case, I was driven more then ever to support victims on a macro level.

My boss suggested I wait to resign (to see how I liked being away from the office), so I instead took an official leave of absence from the DA’s office to write books, teach classes, do public speaking, and appear on television as a guest analyst and commentator.

My leave of absence was for a maximum of six months. I had until September to decide whether I was going to pursue justice as a prosecutor or as an author and advocate. During my time away, I blogged, wrote articles, spoke and lectured, and I realized the huge impact one can make on society through the power of the media. 

Thanks to my experience as a courtroom prosecutor, public speaking and "performing” are not new for me. Many of the same reasons I love being a trial lawyer -- using my strong voice to share a particular point of view -- apply to my love of communicating via television, radio, and the Internet.  I could educate, pontificate, and ensure change.  For the first time, I could say it as I saw it was with no censorship, no fear of angering my boss -- just expressing how I felt, purely, simply, and honestly.

I found my public voice growing and actually being heard. People appreciated seeing a prosecutor shaking things up, calling out lawyers, police officers, and others who weren’t living up to the requirements of their positions, letting down the people they were supposed to protect.  

The biggest difference between working in the popular media versus the courtroom is that people watch TV, listen to the radio, or read because they want to -- not because they received a jury summons in the mail.  They want to hear what I have to say as a spokesperson in the public eye

My other frustration as a prosecutor was seeing how completely different public life is from private sector life. So often I went to work and was amazed that justice was ever dispensed, considering the many shortcomings inherent in the system. I didn’t understand the lack of accountability, the lack of diligence and the overall complacency of a justice system that was supposed to exist to protect our society. 

Without even realizing it, I was traveling a new career path as an outspoken advocate and legal commentator.  No longer a DA, I'm now a watchdog of the very system I once worked in. Instead of following policy and accepting my marching orders and memoranda, I'm doing what I've always done, one way or the other: "saying it like it is." Only this time, there’s no one hanging over my shoulder vetting my words.

When I officially resigned from the DA’s office in July 2009, I told them it was better for me not to try to walk the extremely tight line between being a prosecutor and an outspoken advocate. I wanted to use my voice in the media without worrying whether it was inconsistent with the beliefs or philosophies of the Los Angeles County District Attorney.

Still, while I had not always been able to  speak out and reveal my opinions, as a prosecutor I  had a great deal of latitude and discretion in terms of how I handled my own cases. In them, I was making a difference and changing the lives of children who were being abused. 

I never actually got in trouble, but I always felt that I was teetering at the edge. That was part of my decision: I wanted to leave before I blew it, while I still had a good relationship with the DA’s office, law enforcement, etc.  Besides, I loved the people I worked with. I just wanted us to do better!

Now, I represent "the people,” but in a whole new way. Every lawyer has her own story and her own inspiration.  Mine just happens to have been written by my big mouth.


Leah said...

Congratulations Robin! You are a wonderful advocate & commentator and very fortunate to be doing what you LOVE.

Cherry said...

Robin - you gave me hope many times in our justice system. Educating is the answer. Keep writing those books. Maybe one day we'll all learn to stop blaming the victims and give them at least the same rights as the criminals. Thank you for being the victim's voice.

Marilyn Z. Tomlins said...

You decided what you wanted to do and now you are doing it. That's great. I wish you good continuation.

TigressPen said...

A big mouth is good! And, in truth, yours is just what was and is needed in the media. Keep speaking your mind. The victims should always take precedence over the criminals, and there is definitely a lacking within the justice system and that issue.

Term Papers said...

Its a bestest thought to speak up and give others about world.

Soobs said...

I saw that you and Stacy will be doing a "Justice Interrupted" program on a case that is not far from me. Can't wait to hear it.

A work in progress said...

It's a system that is not very open to criticism and I can understand why to a degree, since they have to watch each other's backs against some really bad guys, but, I have been the victim of what you called "mediocre" work.

I am very proud to say, I filed a suit against the man who tried to kill me in federal court recently. And, I plan to file some more. I don't know much about you and haven't read your book, but I should, read it I think.