Invested: New District Attorney Jesse Wilson talks about his approach to the office, and role in the community
Special to the Sierra Sun
For Jesse Wilson, prosecution is not simply an impersonal, bureaucratic service performed on behalf of the state.
Prosecutors, he said, have a duty and a moral obligation to protect crime victims, and as Nevada County’s new district attorney, he wants to make it clear that, first and foremost, he’s taken the job to fight for victims in this community.
“My number one goal is the protection of the public and holding those accountable who compromise that goal … I’m someone who approaches this position from a very victim-centric approach, which I think is the proper way to to look at prosecution,” Wilson said in his first sit-down interview with The Union.
Wilson expressed that his victim-centric approach to the district attorney role is heavily shaped by his previous position as a prosecutor in El Dorado County, where he worked for four years as a prosecutor for a special victims unit. During this role, Wilson prosecuted numerous sexual misconduct crimes involving victims who were children, where he said he witnessed firsthand the life-changing repercussions of such crimes on victims, their families, and the wider community.
“I’ve had quite a bit of contact with the victims of these crimes, including children, as well as their families, and that’s given me a perspective that carries over in part to this position,” he said.
Wilson said that this experience gave him a better connection and sense of empathy with the human element of cases, something that he says uniquely shaped him both as a prosecutor and as a person. It’s that developed sense of empathy toward the victims of crimes that Wilson said he intends to carry over as district attorney.
“I see the impact not that crime has on the victim, and not just the victim, but also with the repercussions outside of them … that victim is often traumatized for life, but it’s also their family that’s affected as well.”
Before assuming office earlier this month, Wilson had previously been publicly critical of what he and other local attorneys had called an unacceptably low conviction rate on the part of former District Attorney Cliff Newell’s office.
While acknowledging that he would like to improve the office’s win rate in the courtroom, Wilson emphasized that his underlying goal as district attorney is not a higher conviction rate but rather to achieve justice for victims. Such a metric can be useful in assessing a prosecutor’s performance, but shouldn’t be misconstrued as the goal in and of itself, he added.
“With the conviction rate, that metric is simply a symptom of underlying issues … if there’s underlying issues it will come forth in a measurable like that,” Wilson said.
“It’s not just about obtaining a conviction, that doesn’t always align with justice. Justice, handling cases the right way … that’s the number one priority.”
Wilson’s comments differed somewhat from past statements by Newell, who repeatedly expressed that he did not think of the conviction rate as a legitimate means of assessing his office’s performance.
To improve the conviction rate, Wilson said that his office will focus on ensuring that prosecutors are confident that they have exceedingly strong evidence, sufficient to obtain a conviction, before cases are pursued.
“It’s best to ensure that we file and proceed on cases with the requisite evidence needed to obtain a conviction,” Wilson said. “Once we do that and have that approach, and we’re working as a unified office to realize what particular cases we’re choosing to prosecute, just making sure that that requisite evidence is there, these measurables, like conviction rates, will take care of themselves.”
Wilson said that another crucial area of focus for the District Attorney’s Office, which he noted is one of the smaller offices in the state, will be establishing what he called an “all-hands-on-deck” approach — ensuring that every attorney, regardless of seniority, is in the courtroom handling cases.
“I think that it serves the public best when from the most junior deputy DA to the senior deputy DA, all the way up to my position, that we have an all-hands-on-deck approach to things, meaning that every position, every attorney in this office will be in court, will be handling cases.”
Such an approach will ensure that his prosecutors’ workload is equitably distributed, and give his office the resources needed to handle as many cases as diligently as possible, Wilson said.
Wilson also expressed his support for prioritizing pretrial diversion programs in the county, asserting that such programs are a considerable asset to the criminal justice system.
“I do think that strengthening the diversion programs that are in place is very important in this day and age of prosecuting crimes, and even implementing new diversion programs would be a goal for this office,” he said.
Wilson added that statistical evidence indicates that pretrial diversion by and large reduces the rate of recidivism among repeat criminal offenders.
“Strengthening pretrial diversion is important … not just for the sole purpose of diverting people away from the criminal justice system just to do that, but because there is evidence to show that this may be more effective, in stopping repeat offenders, in ending recidivism.”
Key to his success in office, Wilson stressed, will be his ability to maintain strong collaborative relationships with the office’s law enforcement partners, such as the Grass Valley Police Department and the Nevada County Sheriff’s Office.
“My approach with law enforcement will be to keep the lines of communication open — to proactively reach out to these departments and let them know that I’m available, that our deputy DAs our available, and that our office is available to them,” he said.
Wilson also expressed that it’s crucial as an incoming district attorney for him to establish expectations in terms of what kind of assistance his office will expect from these law enforcement agencies, while also striving to meet those agencies’ expectations from his end.
“It really is important to communicate to these agencies what we expect, and for them to communicate what they expect … that type of specific communication needs to take place on a regular basis.”
Perhaps equally important to Wilson will be reestablishing regular professional communication between the District Attorney’s Office and the county’s defense bar — a relationship that Newell and former Assistant District Attorney Chris Walsh both previously acknowledged has been adversarial for a number of years.
Before leaving office, Walsh noted Wilson’s favorable reputation among many of the county’s defense attorneys, saying he hoped Wilson would be able to leverage this good relationship into reestablishing a collaborative partnership between the two entities.
Wilson said that improving communication with the defense bar, which he said is important to good-faith communication in the courtroom, will be a priority for him while in office.
“I really believe in having a good relationship with the defense bar, with those foundational blocks like transparency and trust … so as to facilitate the administration of justice,” he said, noting that it hampers the effective and fair resolution of cases when prosecutors and defense attorneys are so adversarial that they cease all communication.
“When things deteriorate to the point where there’s not open communication, that gets in way of the resolution of cases, and it gets in the way of objective decision making.”
With Nevada County residents following the status of several notable trials this year, including the murder case of Sean Bryant and Michael McCauley, and the anticipated trial of six co-defendants in the alleged murder of Shanta Olsen, Wilson said the community can rest assured that despite the change in administration with the departures of Newell and Walsh, there will be no change in the degree of diligence in which these cases are prosecuted.
The district attorney firmly dismissed any notion that there will be a holdup in his office’s readiness to take these high-profile cases to trial, adding that he is taking over some of these cases himself, including the Bryant/McCauley murder trial.
“We will be ready to proceed at trial on all of these major cases … we will be ready to effectively prosecute these crimes and pursue justice for the victims of these families, and I do plan on handling some of these cases in the courtroom myself,” Wilson said.
“We have very talented groups of detectives who have worked on these cases, we have talented prosecutors and investigators within this office … it’s a team effort, and people have put a lot of time and energy into these investigations.”
On a personal level, Wilson reflected that he doesn’t view being district attorney strictly as a professional role for himself, but that he also views his role in the community as a personal investment, for himself and his family. Wilson, who is married and has three children, said that moving his family into Nevada County and living in the community has given him a newfound sense of commitment to see the District Attorney’s Office succeed in making the county a safer and more peaceful place to live.
“As a person who doesn’t just have a job in this county but who plans on being a member of this community … I’ve had to find a place to live here, my family’s moved, I’ve been enrolling my kids in school, I have a stake in this community moving forward … I don’t just come in here and work and then leave — I’m invested… in making this a better community,” Wilson said.
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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