Kary Antholis:

On today’s podcast we present part one of an exclusive three-part conversation with Eric Siddall Vice President of the ADDA the professional association for Deputy District Attorneys of Los Angeles county. In his capacity as Vice President of the ADDA, Eric spoke with me about his path to becoming a prosecutor, his work as a deputy DA and as a leader of the ADDA. We will also explore his response to initiatives aimed at reforming the criminal legal process. 

Kary Antholis:

Thanks for taking the time to chat with me today. And I’d like to start by getting a bit of information about your background, your path to becoming a prosecutor. And I’d like to start with where you grew up and what were the forces that shaped the way that you look at the world. The people, the events, the experiences that shaped the way you look at the world.

Eric Siddall:

Well, I grew up here in Los Angeles. My dad was an LA district attorney in the early seventies, and he became a defense lawyer then he eventually went to the public defender’s office. And my mom started off as a defense lawyer, in fact, that’s actually how they met. My dad was a prosecutor, she was a defense lawyer and it was her very first case and they met in court.

Eric Siddall:

And then my mom was also in the… She was a member of the US Civil Rights Commission, as well as being a defense lawyer. So, it’s almost like it’s in my blood, right? I’ve been around it my whole life and that’s primarily one of the main reasons why I became a prosecutor is because of my parents.

Kary Antholis:

And tell me about your path into the prosecutor’s office, the district attorney’s office. Where did you go to school? What were some of the experiences that kind of shaped your approach to becoming a lawyer and to becoming a prosecutor?

Eric Siddall:

So I went to college in Boston College and I was actually thinking of joining the Jesuits which is an order within the Catholic church. And at that point, I was not thinking about becoming a prosecutor. Even though it was kind of in the background and I always wanted to be a lawyer because my parents were lawyers and I had always been around the justice systems ever since I was a little boy. And then I thought briefly about becoming a Jesuit and was under the discernment for a couple of years.

Eric Siddall:

And then, went to law school, interned while I was at Law School at Fordham, at the US Attorney’s office. I liked it a lot. Then went into politics briefly working as a staffer, really kind of hated that. I thought that was kind of soul crushing. I didn’t like the fact that, you didn’t seem to really do anything except do press releases and try to make your guy look good. So that kind of turned me off politics and I went and joined the DA’s office and I loved it from day one because I felt like you were actually doing something.

Eric Siddall:

You could do a lot of good in the world. I think there’s very few jobs in the world where your only job is to do the right thing all the time. My interest in becoming a Jesuit probably influenced my interest in becoming a prosecutor and then also dealing with my… under the influence of my family and my… Both of them eventually became defense lawyers. They always said that being a prosecutor… That was the one person in the courtroom that could always do the right thing. And they always thought it was the right path for me.

Kary Antholis:

Unpack that a bit for me. What was it that your parents communicated to you about being a defense attorney and the difference between that and being a prosecutor, explain a little bit more to me about this idea that the prosecutor’s mission is always to do the right thing.

Eric Siddall:

Well, as a defense lawyer. Your job is representing your client, right? And that’s your only job. An ethical defense lawyer will obviously do that ethically and not abuse the system, but your job as a defense lawyer is first and foremost to protect your client’s interests. And through that you’re supposed to be protecting society in general by making sure that the government is doing the right thing and following the law, right? When they’re in the courtroom, the prosecutor there is always… His or her job is always to do the right thing.

Eric Siddall:

Always to act almost as a defense lawyer and also represent the interest of the government. You have to make sure that you’re getting the right person and you’re getting them for the right charges and that you… I think that was something I learned in both of my parents and they influenced that decision-making a lot. My mom also was… She grew up in and was raised in Argentina and there there’s a long history of a distrust of government. Mainly because of government failing their people. And also because of the history of military dictatorships.

Eric Siddall:

So I think she always had a very healthy skepticism of government, which is probably why she eventually became a defense lawyer. She moved away from criminal defense and then became a plaintiff’s lawyer. But from that background of learning what the prosecutor does and also the fact that my dad started off as a prosecutor and he always said that his biggest regret was that he left the DA’s office and became the defense lawyer.

Kary Antholis:

Interesting.

Eric Siddall:

I think that was a big influence that, I mean, if you’re a good prosecutor, if you’re an ethical prosecutor, your job is not to win. If everything is done correctly, you should win. But your job is not to win. Your job is to make sure that the right thing always happens. And sometimes, and this has happened in my career where you’re at the end of trial, in front of a jury and you’re like, “You know what? This is not the right thing to happen.” And you dismiss the case because it’s the right thing to do.

Kary Antholis:

I want to come back to that in a little bit, but I’d like to go into the forces that shaped you as a prosecutor. How you learned to approach the job, how you learned to approach each case, how you learned to assess evidence, how you learned to build an argument and to tell a story for a jury. Those are a lot of questions packed into one thought. But could you take me through the people and the experiences that taught you how to approach a case and the evidence in a case in deciding whether to charge and what to charge. And then talk me through building an argument or telling a story for a jury.

Eric Siddall:

Well, I started off in the DA’s office in 2007. So, I have 13 years of experience. And the way that our office works is you would get like a month of training and then you would go and rotate to different assignments. The first year is basically you’re doing misdemeanor cases and you’re learning the craft of how to actually put it on a trial by dealing with a bunch of little misdemeanor cases, one after the other. I say little, the amount of time and the charges are not that serious, but they’re also super serious to the person that is being charged and they’re serious to the victim who you’re dealing with.

Eric Siddall:

You don’t take that lightly. But I think our office is really good at having mentors and managers within the office that are there for you at the very beginning and kind of guide you through the process. The more seasoned prosecutors who have had major assignments, who are now in management. And I still remember my first boss was a guy named Victor Rodriguez. Victor was the deputy in charge of the East LA Superior Court. And it was my very first assignment. Victor now is a bureau director, he’s pretty high up in the office.

Eric Siddall:

But I would go in, ask him questions about things and he kind of guided me throughout my first three months of my assignment at East LA. So you have these built-in mentors and then your colleagues eventually become your mentors and it’s a very collegiate environment. I think one of the things that’s great about our DA’s office is that you have under a thousand lawyers and unlike other prosecutor offices, people staying in the office for a fairly long time. So you have a wealth of keeping huge bank of knowledge of people that you can talk to on almost every single issue. In fact, John Lewin was someone I used to talk to about jury selection.

Eric Siddall:

And strategizing how to pick a jury. So, it’s a great office in that way and one of the reasons why I think our office doesn’t get in trouble that much in terms of the large cases that we handle is that you have to have a lot of experience before you were put up into the next level. Same thing with our public defenders in LA County. They have to do a lot of cases before they’re given a serious case. And you learn from those smaller cases how to be a better prosecutor or a better defense lawyer and not make serious mistakes. Discovery. Ok? Turning over discovery that is potentially exculpatory.

Eric Siddall:

Our office always had a very strong policy in that you just turn everything over. Because less mistakes are made that way. Sometimes you have to delay turning over some discovery because of witness issues and it’s for the safety of your victims or your witnesses. But we have a pretty transparent way of dealing with discovery.

Kary Antholis:

Interesting. Can you tell me a bit more about how the district attorney’s office in Los Angeles is structured? The different grade levels, the way that management is structured? And then give me a sense of what levels you worked in before you became the vice president of the Association of Deputy District Attorneys.

Eric Siddall:

So, there are five different grade levels and the first level obviously, it would be grade one and the top level is at grade five. All of those positions are civil service protected positions. Meaning that it doesn’t matter what the political environment is at the moment. It doesn’t matter who the DA is, they can’t just fire you without any cause. There has to be a reason why they want to fire you. So it puts the office in a very good position because that civil service protection allows people to do the right thing and not look into the politics of the office as much.

Eric Siddall:

Everyone starts off as a grade one. It doesn’t matter how much experience you have. Everyone starts at the same position. Grade one generally will be sent out to a branch or area court. Sometimes there’ll be doing preliminary hearings downtown, but what they’re going to be assigned to is misdemeanor courts and doing preliminary hearings. Meaning that they do a probable cause hearing in front of a judge to show that the felony was committed by the accused. The very beginning stage of any types of felony prosecution, a few things have to happen.

Eric Siddall:

First a complaint is generated and that complaint outlines the charges that we’re saying that the accused has done. The defendant is guaranteed by our state statutes that their preliminary hearing can happen 10 court days after they’re arrested. There’s a different issue right now just because of the COVID epidemic, but that’s in a normal circumstance. That’s what will happen. The DA then has to go in and present evidence using mainly police officers and sometimes civilian witnesses.

Eric Siddall:

That’s generally what a grade one will do. They’ll do those types of hearings or they’ll be assigned to run a misdemeanor court and they’re giving guidance in terms of what the offers are by their deputy in charge of that misdemeanor court and they handle the calendar, they handle the misdemeanor cases and any trial that comes from that court, that kind of gets you ready for the next level, which is handling felony trials.

Eric Siddall:

As grade two, you generally do lower level felony trials and that would be anything from like possession of narcotics for sales to low level robberies, things like that. And then you become a grade three. Grade three, sometimes you’re assigned to a special unit. So the unit I was assigned to, and I’m currently assigned to is the hardcore gang division. And that unit specializes in gang homicide throughout all of Los Angeles County.

Eric Siddall:

One of the other assignments I have, for example, that was a specialized unit but you can do as a grade two is called the victim’s impact unit. And that unit specializes in any type of sexual assault cases or any type of domestic violence cases or cases where there’s a victim who’s a child. For example, when I was in the victim impact unit, I had a lot of cases involving child molestation and some cases involving child murder.

Kary Antholis:

And how long does one ordinarily spend as a grade one? How long does one ordinarily spend as a grade two before graduating to the next level up?

Eric Siddall:

So grade one is always one year. Grade two will depend on budget constraints. When I was a grade two I was grade two for quite a while because they weren’t promoting people as a grade three position. When the budget is bad you will be doing grade three level work. So I did my first group of murders for example, I did as grade two. I did rape cases and child molestation cases as a grade two and that was just because of the budget issue.

Kary Antholis:

Got it. So how long were you grade one? How long were you grade two and are you currently grade three?

Eric Siddall:

I’m a grade three now I was a grade one for one year. Again, that’s every single DA is the same. I was a grade two for, I think, six years. I can’t really remember. And then I was… Been in grade three for the remainder of time as a DA.

Kary Antholis:

Tell me about working with supervisors as a line prosecutor. Tell me about the nature of relationships. How many supervisors have you had in the course of your work as a deputy district attorney?

Eric Siddall:

Probably about 10 different supervisors. Somewhere around there. I’ve only had one supervisor that I did not think was a great supervisor. Everyone else I thought was fantastic and the one that I had an issue with, he was just not that useful as a supervisor. The other ones have been all phenomenal and the other thing that I’ve always appreciated about my office, and I think this is one thing that I really took exception with when Judge Mader did her podcast with you is I’ve never had a supervisor give me a problem or demote me or note something on my performance evaluation because I asked for case to be dismissed or I advocated for a defendant to get a lower sentence. And I’ve done that on many occasions. I’ve always found my supervisors very open and willing to hear my pitch to lower a sentence or in the case I was thinking about earlier where we dismissed the case right before closing arguments, because the defendant took the stand and I was like, I now have doubt about the case because of what the defendant said. And I went and told my supervisor that.

Eric Siddall:

She immediately said, “Okay, well you have doubt, dismiss the case.” That case actually eventually cost the County of LA a couple of hundred thousand dollars one of the reasons why is because we dismissed the case. That was never even a thought or consideration. It was like “you do the right thing” and that’s all that really mattered.

Eric Siddall:

When she was talking about supervisors or DA’s not willing to do what she thought was the right thing or what they thought was the right thing because of their supervisors, I’ve never seen it. I have a leadership role in our union, so I see a lot of cases that involve grievances and I had not seen any legitimate case where a supervisor dinged someone or told someone not to do the right thing and then penalized that deputy DA.

Kary Antholis:

I spoke with a couple of folks who are  familiar with the dynamics of how line prosecutors often deal with their supervisor’s reluctance to offer lesser sentences or as you put it, “do the right thing.” And I’ve been told that frequently, the line prosecutor and the defense attorney will approach the bench together and then the line prosecutor will say that she thinks a lesser sentence than her official bottom line is appropriate and then suggest that the judge take an open plea for the lesser sentence. The line prosecutor will offer a, “wink wink,” objection for the record so that she can go back and tell her supervisor that the sentence was rendered over her objection. Have you ever heard of that kind of a, “wink wink,” open plea?

Eric Siddall:

Yeah, I have. I’ve heard of prosecutors who have done that. Watching a plea bargain being made is like watching legislation getting made. The expression for watching legislation made is “like watching sausage being made.” It’s not always the prettiest sight and I think sometimes the prosecutor would want the court to take the responsibility if something went wrong with a situation. Sometimes that’s how the process works. I’m not sure if that’s you trying to circumvent your supervisor or it just being that these groups of prosecutors would rather have a court take the responsibility and the hit if something goes wrong as a result of the plea, like for example, the person re-offends. It’s not the ideal way of doing things, but sometimes that’s how it’s done.

Kary Antholis:

Why don’t you tell me some more of the details in the case that you ended up dropping before it went to closing arguments. What was the nature of the charges? What was the nature of the testimony that made you have doubt?

Eric Siddall:

So it was a “resisting a police officer.” There was also possession of a narcotic element to it. I don’t think anyone had any doubt that they actually did possess drugs. But the big issue was whether they were resisting these officers or not. And we went through the whole trial, we put on our entire case and then, there were  two defendants of the case. There’s a boyfriend and a girlfriend.

Eric Siddall:

And it was the boyfriend who took the stand and he gave his testimony. He made me have doubt about the whole case and I went up to my supervisor and said, “Hey, I have doubt. The defendant has just taken a stand and I’m not sure anymore.” And my head deputy said, “Well then you have to do the right thing and dismiss the case.” So I went down and I dismissed the case before we finished the trial.

Kary Antholis:

Was it a situation where his testimony led you to doubt what the police officers involved were testifying to?

Eric Siddall:

Yes. 100%.

Kary Antholis:

Were there any consequences for the police officer? Did the DA’s office pursue any discipline against him or her for what you perceived as not telling the truth?

Eric Siddall:

In that particular case, it wasn’t so much that the… It may sound like we’re splitting hairs on this, but it wasn’t so much that I thought that the deputy was lying. It was more that because of the defendant’s testimony, I had reasonable doubt as to the case and that made me reevaluate the case and ask for dismissal. It wasn’t that I could show beyond a reasonable doubt that the officer was lying or had committed some type of misconduct. It was more of that because of the defendant’s testimony, that created reasonable doubt in the case that made me want to dismiss the case. Eventually, that did lead to a civil lawsuit against LA County for the police officer’s misconduct. I was eventually subpoenaed and gave a deposition during that lawsuit. I think they settled the misconduct. I remember it was close to half a million dollars or more.

Kary Antholis:

Do you know whether there were any ramifications for the sheriff’s deputy in that instance?

Eric Siddall:

I don’t know. I don’t know what the Sheriff’s department to him, if anything. I know that he accused me of not being responsible and was pretty angry with what I did. I think he claimed actually, that I was not thorough with the evidence and that’s why I dismissed the case, which was totally not true because I went through everything that that case had to offer.

END OF PART ONE


Read Part Two of my interview with Eric Siddall here.