‘Difficult decisions’: District Attorney Cliff Newell talks about retirement, has sharp words for critics
Special to the Sierra Sun
“I believe I’ve done the right thing, for the right reason, every single day of my career.”
When he leaves his office on Commercial Street for the final time this week, retiring Nevada County District Attorney Cliff Newell said he’ll likely be feeling a host of emotions as he reflects on the 15 years he’s spent on the job. But one emotion that he certainly won’t be feeling is any tinge of regret.
“I love my job. I always felt positive about it, even when it was controversial — and you’re always going to have half the world mad at you as district attorney. It’s been a really good job,” Newell said.
The four-term District Attorney repeatedly emphasized that he was proud of all aspects of his leadership, both in and outside of the courtroom. And Newell made it clear that he remains unaffected by oft-repeated criticisms of his administration, including those leveled by political opponents and various local attorneys.
“It’s not a new book,” Newell said of his critics. “It’s just the same group of people who dislike me for whatever reason … and it’s been the same group of people trying to get me unelected since 2006 — and they’ve been unsuccessful, by the way,” the retiring prosecutor added, with a hint of a smile on his face.
Newell won Truckee and surrounding precincts in the 2018 election.
Newell touted a number of different administrative accomplishments during his career.
In his first term, Newell helped procure a new and improved facility for the District Attorney’s Office in its current location on Commercial Street. Prior to 2006, he recalled that the office had been located in a physically deteriorating section of the courthouse building, lacking many modern amenities.
“It was a mess,” Newell said with a laugh, of the old facility. The new building has proved to be a both aesthetically pleasing and safe location, allowing office staff to operate in a “modern business flow.”
More recently, Newell has overseen an overhaul of the office’s online case management system, updating his employee’s office computers with modernized software that grants his prosecutors streamlined access to relevant court documents and files. The new system has also allowed his office to be almost totally paper free, a task that Newell said seemed impossible in 2006.
“When I took over the courthouse, we had four rooms full of boxes and boxes with thousands of files that had gathered since the 60s…we now almost don’t have a single paper file.”
Newell said that the new case management system is what allowed the office to function remotely, noting that this would have been practically impossible for a paper-dependent workplace.
“There isn’t anything in this office that isn’t on that system,” he said.
Assistant District Attorney Chris Walsh, who’s also leaving his position this week, pointed to the new case management system as one of Newell’s most impactful accomplishments since taking office.
“A key part of Cliff’s legacy is the modernization of the District Attorney’s Office under his watch,” Walsh said. “The implementation of a paperless case management system has changed the way cases are prosecuted in Nevada County.”
From a prosecution standpoint, Newell said he’s proud of his office’s record in prosecuting serious felonies, adding that his office has had a near impeccable record in prosecuting homicide and sexual assault cases.
“As far back as I can remember, we haven’t lost a homicide case, and on our sex assault cases we have a near perfect score as well,” Newell said. “Those are the cases you need to be winning as prosecutors.”
When he looks back on his 15 years on the job, Newell said that what he’s most proud of are the cases where he didn’t send anyone to jail at all, but instead was able to change a defendant’s life through the many pretrial diversion programs his office advocated for.
Under Newell’s tenure, rather than focusing on pushing less serious felony and misdemeanor cases to trial, county prosecutors pushed for diversion treatment for suspects suffering from mental illness, DUI courts and rehabilitation for drunk driving defendants, and drug treatment/addiction recovery for suspects with ongoing substance abuse issues.
“I and the rest of this office are fully supportive of those progressive types of prosecution,” Newell said of the pretrial programs he pushed for while in office. “You’re still holding people accountable, but rather than just slapping hands, which doesn’t change recidivism according to virtually every study we have, you now have people who are actually reintegrating into our community, and those cases are the ones that make me the most proud.”
Newell also fired back at recent criticisms over the office’s conviction record, calling claims that the conviction rate has been too low “outright lies.” “We’ve had an extremely high conviction rate, actually,” he said.
Newell emphasized that a prosecutor’s goal should not be a high conviction rate, which he opined is a meaningless metric in itself, but rather to improve the wider community — a goal that is often accomplished through pretrial diversion and rehabilitation, instead of winning a conviction, he added.
“The conviction rate argument doesn’t mean anything. If I’m diverting people out of the criminal justice system through pretrial diversion, I’m not ‘convicting’ them,” Newell said.
“In every single law journal, and in every single case talking about a prosecutor’s job, they all say that a prosecutor’s job is to see justice in your community,” he added. “Justice means different things for different people … and sometimes justice means having a backbone and taking public criticism for not sending someone to prison and instead rehabilitating that person.”
Concerning the Board of Supervisors’ vote last month to pass over Walsh — who Newell endorsed to be his replacement — in favor of El Dorado County prosecutor Jesse Wilson, Newell said he was stunned by the decision, calling it a “gut punch.”
Walsh has served as the face of the county’s prosecution efforts for the last four years, and was overwhelmingly supported to succeed his boss by virtually all of the office’s staff, as well as by the office’s other prosecutors, who had signed letters of support for Walsh’s selection, Newell said, calling Walsh an exemplary leader in his assistant role.
“What Chris had become in his time here was not just a really good prosecutor. He had become more than that,” Newell said. “He had become a really great leader in this office. He made mistakes like anyone else, but the thing about Chris was that he never made the same mistake twice. That’s not something you can teach, that’s something that’s innate — that is that unique ability to learn from your mistakes.”
While emphasizing that he was not “second guessing” the board’s vote and that he respects its decision to confirm Wilson, Newell said he felt that the selection process had been heavily influenced by the lobbying of a group of defense lawyers who had stridently opposed Walsh.
“You see a group of defense attorneys, many of whom are currently adversarial with Chris in the courtroom on homicide cases, and then you also have some disgruntled ex-employees in that group,” Newell said. “On the other hand, you look at the depth and breadth of support Chris had, and in my brain I’m going — how did that happen? Well, I know how it happened, I got out-politicked.”
However, Newell said he’s been urging his staff members to look ahead and offer their full support to the incoming district attorney.
“I’m giving Jesse a fine tuned machine in this office, a machine that operates very well, and I wish him well and I wish him success in this,” he said.
‘THE WORLD CHANGED’
For years, Newell has also faced criticism for his perceived lack of courtroom appearances, with Newell’s 2018 election opponent Glenn Jennings claiming that the district attorney had lost the respect of the community as a result of his absence in court.
Newell dismissed allegations that he has become a passive leader of the office. He emphasized the role he has played in crucial, if less visible, work, particularly in improving the relationship between his office and local law enforcement agencies. And again, he pointed to his advocacy for pretrial diversion programs that he said have vastly improved Nevada County. Such longer-term tasks don’t always involve standing in a courtroom all day.
“There’s a reason why the sheriff himself doesn’t give tickets,” he said. “There’s a reason why the coach doesn’t pull out the quarterback and put himself in the game. I have a big picture view of what makes this community, this county, a safe place.”
In retirement, Newell said he has no plans to return to law or to become involved in politics, quashing rumors that he may be planning to run for county supervisor.
Instead, the prosecutor said he’s looking forward to traveling abroad with his wife, with definitive plans to make trips to Zanzibar and Antarctica, among other far-reaching locations.
Reflecting on when he made his decision to retire early, the 24-year public servant said it was around April or May 2020, after undergoing the loss of several people in his life, including his father, who died in February 2020 due to lung cancer.
“It was ugly to watch,” Newell said, fighting back tears. “He was really sick, and then just three weeks later he’s dead.”
In 2020, Newell said he also lost two nephews, including one with whom he was particularly close who died after contracting COVID-19. Those losses, combined with conversations with his wife, who had been urging him to retire since her own retirement two years prior, ultimately shaped his decision to hand off the position to someone else.
Newell didn’t mince words when asked if he had any message for those critical of his early retirement, as he had originally said he would complete his current term through 2022 in his 2018 reelection campaign against Jennings.
“They can be as critical as they want,” he said. “It’s my life, and I’ve done a good job. I completed the tasks I set out to do for this community.”
“I went into this term with every intent of finishing the term … that was my intention from the beginning. I said that and I meant that, but the world changed, and sometimes it changes without my permission,” Newell said, reflecting on the tragedies and tumultuous events of last year that led to him changing his mind and leaving office. He stressed that he had given county officials several months to put together a process to pick an interim replacement, and expressed his confidence in the office’s stability moving forward.
“The county really did a good job with it, and we’ve tried to make this process as clean as possible,” he added.
County Supervisor Ed Scofield spoke positively about the retiring prosecutor’s legacy, calling him both an asset to the community as well as a friend. The supervisor opined that Newell helped keep Nevada County ahead of the rest of the state when it came to effective and progressive pretrial reforms, including the mental health diversion, DUI court, and drug rehabilitation programs that Newell had advocated for.
“I think in some ways, the county has been ahead in terms what’s been coming down in the state as a whole, and (Newell) certainly does deserve credit for that,” Scofield said.
On a personal note, the supervisor spoke of Newell as a public official who was available, agreeable, and easy to make friends with.
“I always liked his personality,” Scofield said. “Cliff has always made himself available when I needed to talk about a situation, and I really do think of him as a friend.”
Walsh spoke of his retiring boss as a gracious, understanding, and agreeable leader of the office, expressing that Newell served with exceptional integrity in and outside of the courtroom.
“Cliff is sincerely one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. One of his strengths, and flaws, is that he gives people second, third, and fourth chances. Some individuals have made the most of these opportunities,” Walsh said.
“As his assistant district attorney for the final four years of his administration, I witnessed many instances where Cliff has had to make difficult decisions,” Walsh added. “While I have not always agreed with every decision he made, I have never doubted his intent. Cliff has always been motivated by a sense of fairness and doing the right thing.”
Stephen Wyer is a staff writer with The Union, a sister publication of the Sierra Sun. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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