As a prosecutor for St. Louis County, Gordy Coldagelli has to deal with suspects. He has to navigate the expectations of law enforcement, crime victims, their families, judges, juries, defense attorneys, and advocacy groups in areas such as domestic abuse and sexual violence. And let’s not forget his bosses – including the county attorney, who ultimately answers to voters.
“You have to serve several masters,” Coldagelli says. “And that gets to be a challenge sometimes.” Now he’s got to deal with TV shows, too.
In his 27 years as a prosecutor, one of the biggest changes is the impact of crime shows like “CSI.” “Juries now expect some science somewhere,” Coldagelli says. In his experience in St. Louis County, however, fingerprints and DNA are rarely as relevant or as necessary as they appear to be on TV. “But juries expect it,” he says.
Welcome to the world of criminal prosecutors, who have to decide what constitutes justice in our state’s criminal justice system.
Different crimes, different routes
In Minnesota, cities and counties divide who handles which crimes. Counties handle felonies. Coldagelli, for example, is one of two felony prosecutors based in the St. Louis County Courthouse in Virginia.
Cities and counties then divide the misdemeanor and gross misdemeanor dockets, based on the crime.
In St. Paul, that leaves Tony Tedesco and other city prosecutors responsible primarily for domestic assaults; “quality of life” crimes, such as noise violations and prostitution; and a range of traffic violations, including drunk driving.
After a suspect is arrested, prosecutors sift through police reports and must decide quickly – sometimes within a few hours – whether to file charges and what those charges should be.
On a Monday morning,Tedesco says, he easily can have 60 cases to decide.
“And there are deadlines. You have to have people charged by noon the next day. If you don’t, they get out. And I sure as heck don’t want a defendant showing up at the victim’s door.”
To help manage that caseload, prosecutors in St. Paul’s criminal division work in eight-week cycles. Two of those weeks are blocked out for trial; the rest are filled with arraignments, reviews, and pretrial, sentencing, and motion hearings, among other duties.
Prosecutors try to follow the same case from start to finish, but that works only about half the time, Tedesco says. In part, that’s because of delays. Defendants may fail to show up. Or there’s the Rubik’s Cube of aligning the schedules of the judge, the prosecutor, and the defense. Those factors mean a trial date is rarely a sure thing.
That uncertainty and the nonstop flow of cases make it hard for prosecutors to schedule their days. It also makes it hard to take extended time off in their personal lives, too, Tedesco says, “because you really pay for it.”
A sense of accomplishment
Tedesco has been a prosecutor for 11 years; for the last six, he has focused on domestic abuse cases. These cases are not for everyone, he acknowledges. For one, they are rarely cut-and-dried.
That makes them more challenging – and emotionally taxing. But that also makes them more fulfilling, professionally and personally, he says.
In prosecuting drunk-driving cases, for example, “you just have to lay out the facts, and the conviction should come.” Domestic abuse cases, however, come with more variables and “a lot of unpredictability,” he says.
Most domestic violence still occurs against women, though he sees an increasing number of victims who are male or partners in same-sex couples.
“You’re trying to help [victims],” he says. “You’re trying to protect them, and it’s hard. Most of them recant. They have all their issues. They make conviction really hard.”
At the end of the day, Tedesco says, “what we’re trying to do is make people safe…. A job well done is really satisfying, in that sense. Saving lives, buying some women some opportunities to make changes in their lives – that’s good stuff.”
Coldagelli finds similar satisfaction. “You have cases that you always remember. They’re always going to haunt you to some degree.
“But if you take a dangerous person off the street, you’ve done something good, and it allows you to feel good about yourself. It allows you to go home and be able to sleep at night. You think you’ve served the public. You’ve done something good.”