The Trial of Getting to Trial

Dealing with victims and their families can be the hardest part of his job, says St. Louis County prosecutor Gordy Coldagelli, of Local 3761.

Tony Tedesco and Gordy Coldagelli both went into criminal law, they say, because they enjoy the challenge of trial work.

“In the civil area, a lot of the times you know exactly what’s going to happen,” Coldagelli says. “A lot of cases are tried almost exclusively on depositions. In a criminal trial, you really don’t know what’s going to happen when you put somebody on the stand.”

The irony is, only a fraction of criminal cases actually end up before a jury – maybe 1 in 60, Tedesco estimates. As investigations and cases progress, prosecutors spend much more time deciding which charges make the most sense, then working out plea agreements.

“Criminal cases, especially, are not static,” Coldagelli says. “Things happen. Witnesses change stories. You have to be able to say, ‘Listen, the case looked good when it came in, but it’s taken a turn for the worse’.”

Coldagelli rejects about half the cases that cross his desk. “A lot of people have the impression that prosecutors are rubber stamps for law enforcement. And that’s not true. I decline a lot of cases for a lot of different reasons.”

Reasons can include a lack of evidence, or a case built on evidence that is obtained unconstitutionally. “Sometimes the police made a mistake,” Coldagelli says, “and I see that upfront, so I don’t charge it.

“A lot of people don’t realize that it’s not just defense attorneys who guard the Constitution. The prosecutors do, too.”

Cutting a deal – or not

Once charges are filed, the type of case often dictates how much discretion an individual prosecutor has in pursuing it. In homicides and rapes, for example, Coldagelli needs his boss or even the county attorney to sign off on a plea deal.

Coldagelli also prefers to keep victims and law enforcement in the loop, too, so everyone is comfortable with – or at least understands – why the case gets settled the way it does.

On DWIs and domestic assaults, prosecutors may have no discretion at all in how they proceed. Instead, state law, the judge, or office policies often dictate a mandatory sentence. “There’s a lot of factors, but a lot of them are pre-determined,” Tedesco says.

On so-called “quality of life” crimes, however, prosecutors often get quite a bit of discretion, he says. In St. Paul and a growing number of jurisdictions, prosecutors have a variety of diversion programs and “problem-solving” specialty courts at their disposal.

Always looking for the best solution

Specialty courts focus in one area, such as working only with veterans, or only with drunken drivers, drug users, or people with mental illness. The underlying goal is to get offenders the resources they need to straighten out their lives.

If offenders successfully complete treatment or stay on medications, for example, and don’t re-offend, the crime is wiped from their record. That’s a better outcome for individuals, the community, and taxpayers, Tedesco says.

Similarly, diversion programs – especially for first-time, low-level offenders – can help turn them away from crime for good. On the other hand, trying that approach for repeat offenders is “pretty pointless,” he says. “These people, I’m looking for the maximum.

“They’ve had many opportunities. And they really have to take responsibility.”