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Achilli murder prosecutor gears up for new job as Santa Clara County D.A.

By Kelsey Williams | 4 Nov 2010

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District Attorney elect Jeff Rosen is gearing up for his new job. (Photo courtesy of Jeff Rosen)

It’s early evening, and Deputy District Attorney Jeff Rosen leans over his desk in his crisp white shirt and navy tie, making a list. Every day Rosen performs this ritual, writing out the things he plans to do tomorrow.  Every day he knows it’s a list he will never quite finish.

For Rosen, who was elected district attorney of Santa Clara County in June, the list keeps getting longer. As he prepares to take office in January, he is seeking out advisers from around the state, trying to meet with everyone in the office, starting to make personnel and policy decisions, and getting up to speed on labor law and budget issues. Not to mention, until last week’s guilty verdict in the Achilli murder-for-hire trial of three men in Los Altos, he has been the lead prosecutor for the office’s most high-profile case.

Rosen rarely stops moving. He strides briskly between meetings, the courtroom and more meetings, running into a host of colleagues and friends who offer their congratulations and ask about his most recent case.

“I’m a movie star in about a three-block radius,” he jokes after greeting 10 people he knew in the front of a restaurant near the district attorney’s office in San Jose.

He greets the well-wishers by their first names, with a smile and a handshake, and proceeds to move down his list of to-dos for the day. When he does sit down for a conversation, he leans forward in his chair and gestures moderately but pointedly to illustrate each thought.

His pace has served him well. Since joining the district attorney’s office 15 years ago, after a brief time in private practice, Rosen has moved up the ranks to the homicide team, handling the most complex and high-profile cases. In his first year, he garnered an award for Misdemeanor Attorney of the Year.

“I like trial work, the courtroom, the argument, the excitement,” he says. When asked what motivated him to be a prosecutor, he pauses and leans back. Slowly and deliberately he replies, “I don’t like when people are taken advantage of or mistreated.”

Rosen carries his family’s history with him, in his strong connection with his Jewish heritage and his drive to seek justice. Every living member of his father’s family is a survivor of a concentration camp during the Holocaust. His father, Morrie Rosen, was interned, along with Rosen’s grandmother,  in several camps before being released from Bergen-Belson in 1945. Many of his ancestors did not survive.

He credits his mother, Harlene, with teaching him “to not be afraid, that the ways things are is the way things are, and not necessarily how they are supposed to be.“

As an undergraduate at UCLA, Rosen had anticipated majoring in political science or history. But he was drawn to philosophy, specifically moral philosophy, after taking a couple of courses. He explains that he was never the type of “monkish” philosophy student who would sit for hours pondering lofty questions. “What philosophy taught me was how to think and write clearly,” he says.

He’s also very organized, according to Assistant District Attorney Karyn Sinunu-Towery. “Yeah, his office is neat, but he knows how to prioritize,” she says.

Navigating the transition from the trials in the courtroom to the trials in the boardroom is a vast undertaking. Yet after successfully running against an incumbent district attorney as a relative unknown, Rosen is battle tested.

“Going into the campaign,” he says, “I knew it would be hard, and a lot of work, and now, looking back, I describe it as ‘hard and a lot of work.’ But the two ideas are very different. I had no idea.”

Then, as now, he began with a simple strategy: ask for help and don’t stop moving.

Sinunu-Towery has worked in the office since 1983 and ran against the current district attorney, Dolores Carr, in 2006. She says Rosen’s biggest challenges will be in handling personnel and the office’s budget. Rosen’s administrative experience amounts to serving as president of his temple, with a budget of $1.5 million, 20 employees and 1,500 members. The D.A.’s office is considerably larger.

Briefly joking that in a few months he will be working on the budget with his trusty abacus by his side, Rosen gets serious and says, “I was elected to be the district attorney, not the district accountant. I’m gonna do the best that I can.”  To Rosen, all budgets are simply a statement of priorities, and he will shape his goals around the budget. He makes a point to mention that he has no intention to accept a budget from the county that he deems insufficient, saying, “Everything is up for negotiation.”

Rosen wants to create and foster an atmosphere of transparency and accountability, both within the D.A.’s office and between the office and the community. He plans to narrow the gap between his highest- and lowest-level employees. He plans for supervisors, who currently do not prosecute cases, to carry small case loads to help them remember and understand the difficulties of trial work.

He plans to ask judges to let him know whenever any prosecutor performs well or poorly in court. “I can’t do anything,” Rosen says, “if I don’t know about it.” And he plans to actively communicate his decisions and policies with the community.

Above all, he emphasizes integrity. His younger brother Jason, Rosen recalls with a smile, once asked him if he had a badge that he carried as a district attorney (he does not). Laughing, Rosen explains, “He said, ‘If I had a badge, I’d be flashing it everywhere to see what I could get,’ and I said to him, ‘That’s why your not the D.A.”

Rosen’s two major goals are to create a Cold Case Unit and a Conviction Integrity Unit. The Cold Case unit, which the current district attorney had eliminated because of budget concerns, would reexamine old cases, using new techniques of forensic science and investigation in hopes of  reducing the number of unsolved crimes.

A Conviction Integrity Unit would be responsible for investigating each guilty verdict and working to eliminate the injustice of wrongful convictions. The unit also would hold the D.A.’s office accountable for potential past mistakes. “The people don’t care that a mistake was made before I was in office, they just want the mistake fixed,” Rosen says.

With big goals in his head, Rosen constructs his next day’s list, before he heads home to his wife Amber and their two daughters. He leaves the list on his desk, there and ready for him in the morning.

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