Longtime District Attorney reflects on career ahead of retirement
Published 12:26 am Wednesday, May 3, 2023
ORANGE — The Orange County District Attorney’s Office has been ahead of its time for quite a while, notes longtime District Attorney John Kimbrough.
Having an open file policy was in play back when he took office in 1993 and has continued through three decades.
An open file policy — allowing defense attorneys access to client statements, lab reports, police reports and photographs — was in play in Orange County long before it was made into law.
And while it doesn’t make for a level playing field in that the defense is also privy to the prosecution’s witness list while the prosecution doesn’t have the same information from the defense, it is fair, Kimbrough said.
He isn’t concerned about getting the win as much as he is about doing justice.
He said there are times when there is just enough doubt in a prosecutor’s mind to a defendant’s guilt that they decide to dismiss a case.
“It’s our job to do justice, not to convict. So I’ll tell you, the hardest thing for young prosecutors that we hire is making them understand it’s OK to dismiss the case,” Kimbrough said. “They think that they have to win these cases. It’s not about winning. It’s about doing justice. And a lot of times winning is doing justice. But sometimes it’s not. Sometimes justice is dismissing it. If we have any doubt, we’re not going to try it. And then as they get more mature, they understand that concept.”
Kimbrough summed up the job of a prosecutor succinctly.
“It is the duty of every prosecuting attorney not to convict but to see justice is done,” he said.
The Orange County D.A.’s Office has weathered many storms, so to speak, one of them being the challenge of handling a grand jury during the pandemic.
While some areas of the state slowed down, Orange County stayed afloat.
A grand jury normally served for six-month terms, but with COVID, this was extended to a one-year term. And since they weren’t using the courts at that time, they commandeered the 128 the District Court, which is the largest courtroom in the courthouse. Jurors were spread out with a pew between them; the witness would sit in the actual witness stand away from everyone behind Plexiglass and had a microphone. Masks and sanitizers were used.
“And you know what? They came all the time. There were hardly any absences,” he said, adding no one had a COVID episode. “And we indicted 600 cases, just about normal for a year, about 600 felony cases.”
They also got good at Zoom. The judge may be in the Hill Country, the prosecutor in her office, the witness at the police station, the defendant in jail.
And it worked.
The D.A.’s Office has a different way to approach domestic violence cases. Kimbrough says the process has evolved.
There traditionally were two thought patterns on domestic violence cases; the victim will drop a case against an alleged abuser and go back versus a victim who needs to be protected from the abuser.
Kimbrough said when a victim decides to drop charges against an abuser, it’s not about her anymore, it’s about the next girlfriend. It’ about stopping him/the abuser.
“If as long as the evidence is there and the assault took place, then the wishes of that victim are less important than the big picture because the focus is on him, not on her,” he said.
Assistant District Attorney Krispen Walker, who announced her plans to run for District attorney in January, elaborated on the new domestic violence program, which works in connection with the Orange Police Department.
“It’s not about necessarily putting them in jail and throwing away the key, it’s getting some services,” Walker said. “There’s a lot of them, if they can get some services that might help, but they have to be held accountable.”
Walker also noted another issue on the horizon. They have changed their approach on sex trafficking. At one time the thought was about the prostitutes walking the streets, then authorities realized there’s a guy out there buying sex and more than likely the prostitute is drug-addicted. And there’s a reason she’s addicted to drugs.
Sex trafficking is not as visible now as it was before, in that it’s online, she said.
“Things have changed. The way criminals do business has changed,” Walker added.
Kimbrough apologized for the mess in his office at the county courthouse this week, saying they had a flood and he hadn’t put things back in place yet.
There were boxes of files set on one desk and a few files on his desk, but books and other items were in their place.
Kimbrough, who is in his eighth, four-year term, is looking to retire.
The wallpaper on his computer gives a glimpse into who Kimbrough is when not in his role as district attorney. It shows a photograph of a young bald eagle in a tree. It was taken by Kimbrough in Alaska.