How did you get this job?|
A lot of hard work. I sent many letters and bugged the hell out of [DA] Ralph
[Martin] for quite a while, to become a DA. It was what I'd always wanted to
do. It was the reason that I went to law school. And I really wanted to work
in Suffolk County, both for the geography and the size of the office and the
types of cases that they handled. . .
But you started out in the private sector?
Well, when I couldn't get a job in the DA's office right out of law school, I
went and I started off in a few smaller firms, and then I ended up in one of
Fidelity Investment's legal departments. . .
And now that your're a DA, is it everything you hoped?
And more. I mean, it's the best job I've ever had. I love being a DA. At the
end of the day, I get to go home and know that I accomplished something, and
that there are so many times during the day when I'm making these massive
decisions about whether we should prosecute, if we do prosecute, what should
the sentence be, and I'm working with people that, but for my efforts, would
have no voice--victims of domestic violence, child victims, some of the
elderly, just people in the community.
One of the projects that I just finished working on before I left Roxbury was
a prostitution prosecution program, where we were trying to work with the
residents to address what they felt was very serious, and that was the fact
that every night and early in the morning, prostitutes were lined up on their
street. And as a result, people were coming in and hassling their wives, their
girlfriends, their daughters, and it was a huge quality-of-life concern for
them. You know, historically those cases didn't get a lot of merit in the
court system. And being able to work with them and try and address that, it's
How do you decide what you're going to prosecute and what you're
I wish that there were hard, fast rules and a little handbook that you could
flip open and solve the [problems]. I mean, a lot of it comes from experience.
A lot of it comes from working in the office for a while and getting a sense of
what office priorities are. For example, one of our office priorities is to
really prosecute very seriously handgun cases. I think it's without dispute
that the consequences of handguns in our society are so severe and so drastic
that whatever we can do to help that is a very worthy effort. So when you see
those types of cases, they get extra attention. It would have to be under an
extraordinary fact pattern that you wouldn't prosecute a gun case.
Is that a policy that's stated explicitly?
That one's an explicitly stated policy. To dismiss a gun case requires
approval from the superiors in the office, because they want to make sure that
the gun cases be dismissed not because it wasn't worked up properly, but
because there are serious flaws, or the interests of justice require it.
What other cases are given priority?
Domestic violence cases. I think for so long in this society, we've been
working towards bringing the problem out of the secrecy that it kind of lay
under for so long. And there's been that recognition that they're pattern
crimes, that the impact of those crimes goes far beyond just a victim, but to
the family and friends that he or she associates with. So the office gives
those a lot of priority. . .
What do you do when you have a case that's not a priority? How do you
decide [whether to prosecute], when you have something where you could go
I think you have to look at the case as a whole. You look at the defendant's
background. You look at the strength of your case, both from the evidence and
the law. Do you have those two factors there? Then you try and assess what
your goal is. And I think for most of us, our goal is to hopefully prevent a
recurrence of crime. . .
So you look at all of that and you see what you can accomplish. And sometimes
I think you have to keep a very open mind, because the stories that you
initially get, you're getting most of them second- and third-hand. There can
be a truth that's more in the middle, and you have to be aware of that. You
have to be aware of the cases that you don't need to punish people at the
maximum, or where witnesses may not be telling the truth for a host of reasons,
either because there's prior conflicts that they've never told anyone about, or
because of money, etc. So you have to always keep an open mind and work
towards the resolution that's going to be just.
As prosecutors, we're charged with a very strong ethical obligation. We have
to turn over all exculpatory information. Our job is not to represent each
individual victim, but rather to represent the Commonwealth as a whole, and to
achieve justice. It's a great mission to know that when you go to work, you're
not just working for some kind of corporate entity, one individual's wishes -- but that you have this higher principle that you act according to.
And do you really feel that in your day-to-day work in your office? Is that
feeling really apparent?
Absolutely. I think, more than any other place I've ever worked, Ralph Martin
specifically talks about it and he encourages every other person on his
executive staff to make that a top priority, that we prosecute only those cases
that deserve to be prosecuted. I think the examples have been set recently.
Two murder cases went before the court. We said, "Look, we're agreeing that
there's new evidence in a case that would require a reversal of a conviction."
I think that's rare, and I'm proud to work here as a result, knowing that every
day I'm given the backing of my office to do what I think is right. And on
occasion, my decisions have been questioned by victims, defense attorneys, and
I've received the backing to really kind of take those strong stands.
Is there any time you can think of where you feel like you made a mistake,
either that you prosecuted something that you would have rather not, or that
you missed something that you feel like you should have?
I'm sure, not being perfect yet, that I have. But as a conscious [matter], at
the time, now on looking back, I would say no. There's so many of the cases
that, if they rise to the level where I'm taking them seriously, I run them by
my coworkers. I discuss them with people outside the office to get a general
take. Sometimes one of the best ways to get a feel of a case is to talk with
family and friends. And while not disclosing any confidential information, you
give them an overview of your case and just see how they respond. Because you
know, the jury that you put a case before is not going to be made up of fellow
prosecutors. It's going to be made up of regular citizens from a variety of
professions. So you do that.
I talk to my superiors all the time. It's one of the great things about our
office. There are very open lines of communication, because they want to make
sure that you have a comfort level. So I think, by the time my cases get ready
for trial, I have an excellent sense of where it is and where it's going. Have
I been surprised? There have been cases that I've been in the middle of trial
and information has come up that I had no way of knowing. The witness suddenly
testifies to something that they never told you. And I've actually stopped
trial. . .
Your relationship to the victim. Can you talk about that.
It's a tough balancing act. From the outset, if you're going to do your job
well, you have to be honest with the people that you're working with. And we
tell our victims and our witnesses, "Look, I represent the Commonwealth, and I
want you to be aware of that because at some point in the prosecution of this
case, our interests could diverge." But the victims are almost always our prime
witnesses, so you want them to be cooperative and communicative. So you
express to them, "While I may have an interest that's slightly separate from
yours, you're always going to have a voice. And I'm going to sit here and be
willing to hear your concerns. And if I disagree with them, I'm going to tell
you up front."
And I think sometimes [it' s most difficult] with victims of
domestic violence . . . because for almost all of them, they started off
falling in love with the defendant. As I tell so many of them, if the
defendant started beating them on their very first date, there wouldn't be a
second date, and they would never commit to this person. . . And it makes it
very tough. I mean, we don't give up our loving relationships easily. And
most people want to give people second chances. And we can be very
understanding of that.
How useful was law school to your job?
Somewhat. I mean, in terms of teaching me how to read statutes and where to
find information and how to think about analyzing a fact pattern and applying
some law to it, very useful. In terms of how to interact with people and how
to keep my calm under fire in the courtroom, not very useful at all. So I
think some of it I learned from some trainings, and a lot of it I learned from
watching more experienced attorneys. And then some of it, I just learned hit
or miss. I mean, the frustrations of not being successful and not being able
to coax information that you need, you develop tools to deal with that.
Every victim or every witness sometimes demands a certain style. Some people
will tell you what you need to hear when you remind them that, look, they have
an obligation to testify truthfully, and that they're going to be under
subpoena. Other people, if you take that tough approach, will just clam up.
Some people need the reassurance that you're committed, that you're not going
away as soon as they talk to you and that they're going to become case number
258. And I think for some of the victims of violent crime, you're asking them
to share very painful, intimate details with a complete stranger. And you have
to demonstrate to them that you're going to work hard, that you're prepared,
that you know what you're talking about, that you're going to be honest with
them, and then you can say, "Look, while I know we don't have a long-term
relationship here, I hope I've demonstrated that you can trust me to some
extent and that I'm not just going to disappear and evaporate."
What made you agree to participate in this film?
I don't know. Part of it's because I was asked, both by my office and the
producers. At first I was reluctant, and I wasn't going to say yes, just
because I was concerned about an adverse reaction that could come up. I was
concerned that: What if I made this huge blunder in front of the TV world?
But the producers, we sat down and talked with them, and I think that their
interest really was to show it the way it was. They didn't seem to have this
hidden agenda, other than to really kind of let people see what they ordinarily
And, I know so many people are interested when I talk to them about what it's
really like, and the public has no real conception, I think, of just how much
goes into a case. When you walk into a jury session, that's like the calm of
the storm. All the hard work, all of the juggling, all of the various factors
that have gone in, drop away and they just see the finished product. So I
think, to the extent that the public understands how hard we work and the
efforts that get made daily on their behalf, I was hoping at some level that
people would then say, "Gee, maybe the prosecutors should get paid a little bit
more money," and I wouldn't have to lose so many. As a supervisor, the hardest
issue that I faced was turnover. I lost so many DAs during my tenure as
Because they couldn't get paid enough to--
--to support a family, to get married. When my wife and I decide to start a
family, it's going to be a sad day. What should be a happy moment in my life
is going to be very sad, because I realistically won't be able to afford to be
a DA. I'm going to have to [go into private practice] unless something
drastically changes. And that's going to be one of the saddest days of my
life. I mean, I'm not asking to make megabucks. I'd like to make enough that I
could put my kids through college and pay the mortgage, just the general
aspects of life.
Besides salary, what else is difficult in this job?
I think the caseloads. There is a lot of stress. You're suddenly hearing
about aspects of life that most people never hear about. And it's the ugly
side of life, oftentimes. There are times when you come home and you're
depressed at what people are capable of doing to one another. And you sit
there and you question some basic truths of humanity. And it's tough. But I
have a good support system. My friends, my wife, they all are very
understanding, and you get by. You make those accommodations early on in your
career, about the fact that you can't make everything better, that you don't
have any magical powers, and that there are times you're going to lose, no
matter how hard you work. And I think as long as I know that I tried my best,
I go home and I wake up ready to fight again the next day.
How many cases do you have going on at once?
Well, it varies. Now that I'm in a kind of an administrative, supervisory
role, I have far fewer. I have two open cases right now. But when I was a
line ADA, I would have anywhere from 100 to 250 cases open at a time. No
secretary, no assistant. I mean, Roxbury District Court had three secretaries
handling anywhere from 8 to 11 ADAs, and they could barely keep up with just
making sure that all the summonses went out. So you type all your own letters.
You file all your own stuff. You organize everything. . . We had at Roxbury
one paralegal and one investigator to work with all of the ADAs. So everyone
had to pick and choose very carefully. So the vast bulk of your cases, it was
you alone. Whatever efforts you put in, that's what was going to come out on
the other end.
What about your relationship with the defense attorneys? Are there
friendships? There are the stereotypes of the [heartless] prosecutor and the
liberal do-gooder defense attorney.
I think, like most stereotypes, there's some truth to it or it wouldn't have
gotten started in the first place. There are both sorts, but the vast majority
are in the middle. . . To be honest, I have an inherent respect for the role
that they play. I mean, if it was just me going into court, and there was no
check or balance, and there was no one looking over my shoulder and kind of
representing the other side, that would be very scary, because it would be very
easy to forget certain things, or to get used to that much power. So I respect
the role that they play. Do I like it sometimes? No. Their duty is one of
zealous advocacy. That's their ethical duty. And sometimes they stretch that
duty beyond what I'd like to see. But the vast majority that I work with, play
within the rules. They know when their case is weak. They know when their
case is strong. And if they try and act otherwise, they lose too much
credibility. The only thing you really have in this business is your
credibility. It's the same with prosecutors. You can't recommend a maximum
sentence for every case. If you go in and you say that the guy who littered
deserves the maximum penalty, the same penalty as the guy who committed a
violent crime, you're going to get laughed at. You have to be able to look at
things on a scale and prioritize, because the system would grind to a halt if
every case had to go to trial. . .
What about all those tv courtroom shows? Do you watch The Practice
and Law and Order?
Yes, of course I do.
Do you think they're realistic?
No. The entertainment value is outstanding at times, and I think some of the
issues are realistic. Like Law and Order, they draw their material from
real cases. The problem that they present, from my perspective and from the
practical perspective, is they show easy resolution in an hour, for the most
part. They don't show the long, drawn out process that a criminal case can be.
And the arguments that they make are designed for dramatic value, not legal
value. I could never make the arguments that they make on The Practice.
My case would be instantly thrown out of court and I would have serious
sanctions imposed, if I made some of the arguments that they make. So the
problem for me becomes, my jurors, who have watched these shows, there's some
expectation that it's going to be like that. You know, they sit back at the
trial, "I'm going to get to watch Viktor Theiss do an opening like I just saw
last night on TV." And it's not like that. . .
You were just promoted. What's your new position?
Now I am the new Deputy Chief of District Court's Community Prosecution.
That's my big fancy title. What my job is now is, I work with the Chief
of District Courts, and basically the goal is to . . . increase the lines of
communications between downtown and District Court, and provide some hands-on
supervision with some of our smaller courts, and to just answer all those
questions that can't be addressed by the supervisor in District Court,
questions like: "You know, I do have this serious case, but the evidence
doesn't hold up. What should I do with it?" I mean, that's always a tough
call, when you believe a crime occurred or there's a victim who's been
seriously hurt, but yet you just can't prove the case. It's a very tough call
to make, and sometimes it's only fair to the supervisor who's down in the
trenches in the District Court to be able to have someone a little bit more
removed, step in and say--"It's time to let go." When they've made a
connection with that victim, and it's a very hard thing to do. It's one of the
hardest things to have to explain, that "Look, while I believe it happened, I
just don't have enough evidence at this point to prosecute." And the burden of
"beyond a reasonable doubt" is extremely high.
How often would you say that you would plead cases out? What's the
It's hard to say. The vast majority of cases get pled out. If they don't get
dismissed for want of prosecution because a victim doesn't show up in court, a
key witness doesn't show up, or there's just not evidence, then out of those
cases left . . . 90% plead out, if not more. You have to remember, Roxbury,
my last year there, handled 8,000 new cases. In the jury session, there were
only about a little over 1,000 cases put on for jury trial, if that. So right
there, the vast bulk aren't even put on for trial. Out of those that are put
on for trial, most don't go to trial. You're lucky if one or two trials happen
There's one point where you say in the film, "No one's happy with this
decision. I didn't get what I wanted. They didn't get what they wanted. No
one got what they wanted." How often does that happen?
It happens a fair amount. And it is frustrating, because there are times when
you want to see more happen, and unfortunately the system won't allow it
because it's overworked. The volume is just tremendous. The system couldn't
handle every case going to trial. So deciding which cases deserve to go to
trial-- I honestly believe that there are cases that deserve the maximum
sentence. If you are caught severely beating someone to the point where you
fracture their face in five places, if you don't have much of a criminal
record, you should still, if you've almost killed someone, you should be facing
a significant amount of jail time, if not the maximum. Let's say, 2 years in
a house of correction. And I think that case should go to trial. . . But
the system, because it's so overwhelmed, will oftentimes step in and say,
"Look, we'll give you 9 months in a house of correction, or 6 months in a
house of correction." And so it's flawed. It's as good as the actors within
Is that the biggest problem with the way the system works, do you think?
Just the fact that there's too much for too few people to handle?
I would say, the vast bulk of the serious problems stem from that, and that
alone. I think there's a lot of people with good intentions, that sometimes
get caught up in the volume and can't handle it. I think, if the volume was
less, you'd have the opportunity to spend more time really weighing and
analyzing all the various factors than you do now, and people just wouldn't be
quite so burnt out by the end of the day. I mean, by the time you get to
Friday, it's been a long week. Everyone's human, from the judges to the
defense attorneys to the DAs to the court offices to Probation. So sometimes,
when you get worn out, it's tougher to keep your eye focused on larger issues
of justice. And that can be tough. . .
Do you have advice for young "wanna be" DAs?
You mean future DAs who are in law school now?
Yes, or kids in high school who are going to watch this on TV and say,
"That looks like a cool job."
Hopefully they'll be in a state, like California or Connecticut, where starting
salaries are nice, with a better benefit package.
The advice that I'd give is that if you really want to be a good DA, I think
you have to really begin focusing on developing interpersonal skills, learning
how to interact with a wide variety of people. I mean, you're interacting with
police officers, court officers, probation officers. You want to really study
in law school some of the underlying procedures and the law that governs them.
I mean, the US Supreme Court over the past 50 years has come down with a host
of decisions that give guidance to how this is supposed to work. And if you
don't understand that well, you're not going to do very well. While you're an
undergrad, taking some courses on the criminal justice system will give you a
huge leg up. Understanding some of the societal factors that are involved in
crime is huge. And just, I think in general, having life experiences that take
you outside what your normal role may be.
When I was an undergrad, I worked at a domestic violence shelter, and then I
took a class on the penal system, so I actually went to a prison near the
college and had to meet some of the prisoners and interact with them and get to
know their life stories. And all of that provided a lot of opportunity to
change the way I thought about stuff. They were both two of the best classes
that I ever took, working at a domestic violence shelter in college is what
made me become a DA.
. . . And then I worked with some sexually abused children there, and that
was the hardest thing that I'd ever handled at that point. I was 19 years old,
and I remember hearing a 5-year-old, and I was sitting in on her intake. And
she talked about how her father dug bugs out of her as she drew a graphic
picture of a man with a penis. And the interviewer asked her, "Is that what
Dad uses?" She said, "Yeah, that's what Dad uses to dig the bugs out with."
And at that point, my world kind of just crumbled. I had never seen anything
so harsh, in terms of how much innocence had been stripped from this kid. And
I found myself saying, "That is so horrible. What can I do to stop that?"
I'll never forget that experience. I kind of keep it in the back of my mind.
When I get depressed or when things go tough, I remember that kid. And you say
to yourself, "That's what you're arguing for. That's what you're advocating
for." Not that you can ever give back what has been taken away, but you can
achieve some justice. You can say that there has to be a consequence for an
action that bad. So I think if you could, as people are developing, come
across experiences like that, I think it provides you with kind of the fire in
the belly that you have to have, to be a good prosecutor. . .
Where do you think you'll be in five years? Where do you want to be?
Where I'd want to be? I'd want to be in the DA's Office on a kind of Superior
Court senior trial team, trying serious felonies.
Do you think that will work for you?
Not unless I win the lottery or my wife gets the job of all time.
Unfortunately, no. That's where I want to be. Where I'll probably be is
working in a small law firm, maybe one of my own with some friends of mine. .
Any final thoughts about your work, the criminal justice system, this
I would hope that one message that can be given out is that if viewers sit back
and watch the show, someone's [going to say], "Wow, that's just so far removed
from my daily life. It really doesn't have much to do with me." But it does,
in so many ways. The statutes that we have to enforce, some of the procedures
that are in place, are a direct result of legislative initiatives. And to the
extent that people are concerned about issues of crime and prevention of crime,
they have a tremendous role that they can play in dealing with their
legislators and making their wishes known, and saying to them, "Look, these are
important issues and we want to see you develop legislation that effectively
addresses them." I think that that's very important. . .
what's it like elsewhere? |
viktor theiss |
lisa medeiros |
behind the scenes
stats & facts |
video excerpt |
press reaction |
tapes & transcripts |
pbs online |
web site copyright 1995-2013 WGBH educational foundation