Local

High turnover in high ranks of Fresno DA's office

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Fresno County district attorney's office is bleeding prosecutors at its highest level and it may have an effect on public safety. Its homicide unit has seen a turnover rate of more than 40% since county supervisors imposed a pay cut in December 2011.

Action News talked to the chief assistant district attorney -- Kelly Keenan -- Wednesday afternoon and even he admitted the loss of prosecutors can make people less safe. But he says it's hard to compete with counties with deeper pockets.

They've handled some of Fresno County's highest profile murder cases -- from Jarrad and Jerry Beard to Megan Martzen to the Fresno State PlayStation murder. But Burton Francis, Mike Frye and Chris Walsh have all left the district attorney's office within the last 15 months. For all three, it was a painful decision to leave the homicide team.

"It was bittersweet, as I was saying, because of the fact I worked so hard to get to this position," Walsh said.

Their departures followed a 3-2 vote by Fresno County supervisors to impose at least a 9% pay cut on all prosecutors. Those with expert certifications, like Francis, took even bigger cuts. Francis quit within weeks; Frye says he started looking right away; and a year later, another county offered Walsh a significant raise. 40 years of prosecution experience gone. But all three believe the problem is bigger than them.

"I think there's been a diminution in the effectiveness of the district attorney's office as a result of these cuts," Francis said.

In fact, the DA's office has lost 18 attorneys since 2011. And the longtime homicide chief, Robert Romanacce, also stepped down from his position. Those who are moving on say losing experienced prosecutors will hurt everyday citizens.

"The impact will be less justice for victims, more complications in court and unfortunately in a greater effect, a better situation for criminals in this county," Walsh said.

The effect inside the office is a lower morale. Administrators like Keenan say it's a natural reaction to pay cuts. But current county contracts give higher salaries to public defenders than prosecutors, and as long as that's true, the departing attorneys say good lawyers will keep leaving the DA's office.

"I'd hope it doesn't get to the point where I have to ask one of them to just turn off the lights as they leave the building," Francis said.

The prosecutors' union is still in negotiations with Fresno County over their contract, but they tell Action News the county will not even discuss changes to salary.

(Copyright ©2014 KFSN-TV/DT. All Rights Reserved.)

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fresno, fresno county, local, corin hoggard
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