By PAUL YOUNG
A Riverside County prosecutor who has put away some of the region’s most notorious killers announced Thursday he will challenge District Attorney Paul Zellerbach in next year’s election, saying a change of leadership is needed to address plummeting morale and restore public confidence in the D.A.’s office.
“After 15 years with this office, I know that our attorneys are talented, smart, professional and passionate about making it right for the victims of crime and serving justice,” Deputy District Attorney Michael Hestrin said. “But we have a serious crisis of leadership that has left the office adrift. That is why my mission is to change the status quo.”
Hestrin, 42, made his announcement before a standing-room-only crowd of roughly 250 prosecutors, D.A.’s office investigators and other invited personnel gathered at the County Bar Association building on Main Street in downtown Riverside. The Riverside County Deputy District Attorneys’ Association held its quarterly meeting there this afternoon.
“I’m tired of our office being used as a monument to one man’s ego,” Hestrin said. “I’m tired of our core mission taking a back seat to politics. If elected, you have my word that I will not allow politics or favoritism to tarnish our core mission. Our best people will be in the courtroom regardless of who they know or support.”
Hestrin told City News Service that Zellerbach had engaged in “systematically demoting” those he deemed disloyal or potentially threatening to him politically.
“The people he perceives as friends and supporters — those are the ones he promotes,” Hestrin said. “He has an obligation not to play favorites, but to be fair, just and even-handed.”
If elected, he will make it a priority to “unite the office,” Hestrin said.
“This is about a cause that’s bigger than ourselves,” he said. “This is about service to the community.”
Zellerbach told CNS that he was unsurprised by Hestrin’s decision.
“Whenever you’re a first-term anything, invariably you can expect some sort of opposition,” he said.
The D.A. denied having an ego-driven style of management and said he felt confident that morale among the agency’s 750 employees was better than when he came into office in January 2011.
“I’m feeling good about our direction and mission,” Zellerbach said.
“Our criminal and civil cases are being tried in a more expeditious manner. Our conviction rates are up. We’re more transparent and open.” He expressed concern that politics might become a disruptive influence between now and the June 2014 election.
“I expect Mr. Hestrin and his supporters to do whatever they’re going to do outside the workplace,” Zellerbach said.
Hestrin’s swipes reflected dissension that has plagued relations between the county’s top prosecutor and the RCDDA leadership since the former judge took office. Senior prosecutors have been vocal in their criticism of the D.A., telling CNS that he has undercut public safety by pushing policies that favor plea agreements over trials to chalk up easy wins and has fostered an environment where victims of crime are not viewed as important.
Zellerbach has adamantly denied the accusations, telling CNS his goal is about “trying to achieve fairness and at the same time protect the public.”
Hestrin, a Riverside County native, is the son of a Palm Springs police officer and has worked for the D.A.’s office since 1997.
Until last year, he was a senior member of the capital homicide unit but is now prosecuting robberies. Most recently, he and veteran Deputy District Attorney John Aki handled the prosecution of cop killer Earl Green, who was sentenced to death for the November 2010 ambush-slaying of Riverside police Officer Ryan Patrick Bonaminio.
Hestrin also prosecuted serial arsonist Raymond Lee Oyler, who ignited the 2006 Esperanza wildfire that killed five U.S. Forest Service firefighters near Idyllwild. Oyler was handed a death sentence.
Other successful death penalty prosecutions led by Hestrin include the cases of Javier Victorianne, who strangled and sexually assaulted a teenage girl and a 37-year-old woman, and Tony Lee Reynolds, who sexually assaulted, beat and fatally stabbed a pregnant mother of two in Riverside.