By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
Last week marked the end of Sharon J. Matsumoto’s 35-year career with the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office.
Starting as a trial deputy in 1980, she worked her way up to assistant district attorney in 1998 and became chief deputy district attorney in December 2012, succeeding Jackie Lacey, the current DA.
“When she became district attorney and she asked me to be her chief deputy, we embarked on this partnership, which I think has worked out very well,” Matsumoto said. “And I hope she has found it as satisfying and as rewarding as I have … It’s been great being her chief deputy.”
Interviewed at her office on Jan. 26, Matsumoto said, “My husband (Ron Rose), who’s a Superior Court judge, is also retiring at the same time, so we’re having a joint reception on Thursday. … My husband and I bring in brownies every Friday. We’ve done it for a number of years … as a treat for everybody at the end of the week. So this reception will be our way of saying ‘thank you’ to everybody that we’ve had a chance to work with and get to know over the years, and a chance for them to get one last brownie.”
Regarding her future plans, she said, “I’m on the board of directors for the Constitutional Rights Foundation. My husband and I have been active with that group for a long time … It’s a non-profit organization, it’s non-partisan. They work to make sure that our young people learn about civic government and how to become good citizens. That’ll be something that we will definitely continue to be a part of.”
As chief deputy, Matsumoto made sure that the DA’s Office — consisting of about 2,300 people, including about 1,000 lawyers, 275 sworn law enforcement personnel, and professional clerical and support staff — ran smoothly.
“The mission that we have is a very important one,” she said. “But we exist because something bad has happened to somebody, and that’s just our starting point. So the challenge has always been how do we seek justice in a way that is the fairest way that we can do it and the most just way for everybody involved, and that includes not only our victims, but the defendants who are part of the criminal justice system.
“One of the biggest parts of my job has been personnel … Personnel issues are probably more than 50 percent of the job, and those can be quite challenging. You have personnel issues in every organization … Things happen. People are people. And those are the ones that can get a little bit tricky, and you have to realize that people have issues going on in their personal lives. You just want to make sure that to the extent possible, it doesn’t flow over into their professional lives.”
She noted that overseeing specific cases was not part of the job. “It would be impossible to know everything about every case that is going on, and I think counterproductive … What I do is keep myself informed about is the general workings of the office, if there are policy issues that the district attorney has implemented, she wants to make sure that people are following her policies and her guidelines … The chief deputy kind of oversees the running of the office on a day-to-day basis, but not at a micro-management level.”
Matsumoto has been part of the executive teams of three district attorneys — Lacey, Steve Cooley and Gil Garcetti. “Each one of them … has been district attorney over a different point in time in the criminal justice system. And now I think people have realized that we have to be a little more innovative and a little smarter about the way we pursue justice because the prisons are overcrowded and jails are overcrowded, and issues like mental health have come to the forefront …
“If we approach things a little differently, we can keep people out of the system before they get too deep into it. So if someone has a mental health issue, if we can offer treatment to them early on, maybe they won’t end up in jail a second or a third time. If someone is struggling with a drug problem, maybe we can address that early on so they don’t end up in jail or prison. We have a veterans’ court and a lot of other alternative sentencing courts, and those are innovative ideas to attack the problems that people have, but outside the system that lands them in jail.
“Because putting someone in jail, while it may protect society at some level, it also doesn’t do everything it necessarily can to make sure that these people at some point get on to a productive life so they can have a future and the criminal justice system can handle the cases that really need to be handled, the violent crimes.”
Matsumoto’s parents, Akie and John, met while interned with their families at the Amache camp in Colorado. Her father was one of the few Nisei to serve with the Army Air Corps during World War II.
“Listening to their stories certainly was a motivating factor for my brother and my sister and myself in looking forward to what our future could be,” Matsumoto said. “My mom was only 19 when she went into the camps … a time when her life was beginning to be formed. She had grown up in a very small town in Northern California and when she went into the camp, that was the most number of people she had ever been around, whether it was other Japanese Americans or not. She’d never been in such a large community …
“For my mom’s generation, kids who were like 18, 19 years old … she was really conflicted about this because she realized they were behind these barbed-wire fences with armed men keeping watch over them, but at one level it was a new and exciting adventure for her. But it was also very difficult as she aged and as she grew older, she … thought about more what had happened to her, and it impacted her quite a bit.”
The experience was tougher for Matsumoto’s grandparents. “It would be hard for anybody to live in that situation, but for that generation of Japanese Americans and their feelings of modesty and privacy, it was very, very difficult. My grandparents didn’t speak English and I never, unfortunately, learned Japanese, so the stories that I heard were through my parents.”
Her grandparents, who farmed before the war, found it difficult to get re-established after their release from camp. “My dad came back from the Air Force and married my mom. My mom and dad and his parents went to Northern California, picked hops, and did various types of things. My grandparents eventually settled on a small place up in Sebastopol (Sonoma County), which is where I was born.”
Matsumoto’s parents “always told us was that because of what they had gone through, we should take this opportunity to do what we could for our community and for our future generations, and make sure that what they went through didn’t happen again. The other thing they told was that we could do anything we wanted. No matter what we chose to do, if we wanted it we should work hard and do the right thing and always be the right kind of person.”
The children took that message to heart. Her brother Terry served as chief financial services officer and treasurer for the L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority and her sister Janet works for UC San Diego.
“Our lives have been very fortunate because of the sacrifices our parents made,” Matsumoto said.
When she was a prosecutor at the Beverly Hills office, Matsumoto once pursued a case against actor Richard Dreyfuss. “He had an automobile accident. This was after he won the Oscar. When he was in the hospital, the nurse was going through his clothes as they do, and found some drugs. So we charged him with drug possession. I did the preliminary hearing in the Beverly Hills court.”
In court, Matsumoto asked the male nurse, “Do you see the individual in the courtroom today whose clothing you were going through that day in the hospital room?”
The nurse looked around and said, “Nope.”
“Here’s an Oscar-winning actor sitting at the counsel table in the courtroom, and he didn’t recognize him, and everybody started laughing,” Matsumoto recalled. “I had other ways to connect him to the crime, so that wasn’t fatal to my case.”
On a much more serious note, she remembered the case of a psychologist who was stalked by a former patient. “She became obsessed with him and she started stalking him and his family. She found out where they lived … She followed their children to and from school. She would go and hide beneath the windows of their house and make animal noises. She would slash the tires on their cars. His wife was pregnant at the time and she chased her down the street.
“They would call the police, they would seek restraining orders, and at the time those cases were handled by the City Attorney’s Office. This was back in the ’80s, before people recognized stalking for what it was. So they moved. She found out where they were. she moved close to them. The city attorney would prosecute her and she would get five days maybe for contempt of court, and that was it.”
In December 1987, the woman ambushed the family in their driveway as they returned home from dinner. The 34-year-old psychologist was shot in the right arm, his 31-year-old wife was shot in both legs, and their 6-year-old daughter was shot in the left leg. Their three boys, ages 18 months, 9 and 10, were not hit.
After getting the children into the garage, the psychologist used a metal lawn chair as a shield. Somehow he and his wife were able to wrestle the woman to the ground and hold her until police arrived. The woman was prosecuted for attempted murder and received a life sentence. She is now 55.
“I went to the prison at Frontera to do the parole hearings, the ‘lifer’ hearings we call them, because after a certain amount of time you become eligible for parole and you go before the Board of Prison Terms,” Matsumoto said.
The family, who are Orthodox Jews, “are so afraid of this woman, who has serious mental health issues, that if she is ever released they are going to move to Israel. They’re just going to flee the country,” Matsumoto said. “So I’ve handled their case ever since then. They are wonderful people … Every two or three years when this case comes up, it brings everything out again for them.
“Their children now are in their 20s and 30s, and the last time we had a hearing I asked them to attend the hearing with me because the woman has been in prison now for 25 years. She has learned to say some of the right things, but it’s very clear she’s still fixated on them.”
For example, the woman, who is not Jewish, has been taking Hebrew lessons.
“It’s been my goal at all these lifer hearings to present all the evidence so that they don’t let her out, because I think she’s still dangerous,” Matsumoto said. “So now I’m retiring and I won’t be able to handle these cases anymore. But I’ve turned it over to a colleague that I took with me to the last hearing and she’s met the family, she’s become very familiar with them.
“That, I think, has been the one case that I’ve carried with me because you see how easily six people could have been dead in the blink of an eye. Fortunately, just by the grace of God, they weren’t. The husband still has permanent nerve damage in his arm. The daughter still has a bullet in her leg. They can’t take it out because it would be too dangerous. The mother has wounds that have not healed properly over the years.”
Asked about role models and mentors, Matsumoto said, “I was fortunate enough to be the special assistant to Audrey Collins when she was the assistant district attorney under Gil Garcetti. Audrey took me to a lot of meetings with her and really exposed me to a lot of issues that are important if you progress up the management ladder … She became a U.S. District Court judge. Then last year Audrey went to the California Court of Appeal.
“She has been someone that I’ve tried to emulate over the years. She has a very calm demeanor. she’s very reasoned and thoughtful. And that’s someone that I have used as a role model and mentor over the years. It’s been a great career.”