Generally these blogs are about the disappearance Ray Gricar, the former Centre County District Attorney. In this blog, however, I wanted to look at the legacy of Mr. Gricar as Centre County’s District Attorney. His nearly 20 year tenure was impressive.
Many people do not understand the full role of the district attorney. The prime function is not to go into court and argue cases. The district attorney in an office as large of Centre County is the supervisor of the office. He (or she) sees that the assistant district attorneys do not make mistakes and determines what is prosecuted or appealed. The role of the district attorney is administrative.
The administrative role is not a particularly glamorous role, especially if done well. The day in and day out successes do not get reported. Only the mistakes get reported. If the District Attorney is handling the administrative aspects of the job well, nobody notices. The only way to see it is to see what the office is like with another district attorney running the office.
We all had a chance to see what happened with another incumbent running the office, Michael T. Madeira, after Mr. Gricar’s term expired. With a few exceptions, most of the staff that was there for Mr. Gricar’s last term or longer was there for the first three years of Mr. Madeira’s first three years in office. There obviously were problems. While I have chronicled Mr. Madeira’s role in the Gricar investigation, these problems extended well beyond that.1 If anything, these other problems dwarfed his conduct of the Gricar case. These problems were ultimately administrative and these were problems that Mr. Gricar never let happen.
So the first part of Mr. Gricar’s legacy was that he ran the Centre County District Attorney’s Office well for nearly two decades.
Mr. Gricar was also something that you don’t normally see in a district attorney. He was innovative. In 1997, he along with State College Police, charged a rape suspect on the sole basis of a DNA profile. They did not have the person’s name or address, only the DNA; the warrant was issued for “John Doe” identified with that specific DNA profile. It was done to meet the statute of limitation requirement.2 Mr. Gricar was one of the first, if not the first prosecutor in the Commonwealth to do this. An article about the process (though not this particular case) was published in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review, where it was described as a “new option.”3 It appeared about four years after Mr. Gricar did it.
The second part of Mr. Gricar’s legacy as district attorney was that he was an innovative district attorney, willing to try something new.
Mr. Gricar did something else that was part of his legacy. He tended to argue cases personally in court, especially if the involved deaths.
We have a mental image of a district attorney often formed by the old Perry Mason television series. The elected district attorney in that series, Hamilton Burger, was always in court arguing cases personally against the great Perry Mason, and would always lose those cases to the great Perry Mason (on appeal if necessary) . That always left people wonder why, if he lost the number of cases he did to Mr. Mason, the good people of Los Angeles County kept on re-electing Mr. Burger.
In reality, this would be an assistant district attorney losing the cases and the actual district attorney would be running the office. One prosecutor told me that some larger district attorney’s offices have an assistant district attorney referred to as “Jack.” ADA “Jack” is a good lawyer, but he ultimately does not care what his win/loss statistics look like. “Jack” isn’t politically ambitious, and isn’t really concerned about the public relations if he loses. The district attorney knows that a case, while not impossible, has a very low chance of resulting in a conviction; he gives the case to “Jack.” Both the DA and “Jack” know that the case might be lost, but they feel that the case must still be prosecuted. “Jack” might win, but a loss won’t be counted against “Jack” by the DA. The elected DA doesn’t suffer bad public relations by personally arguing and losing a case. Mr. Gricar was different.
In general, if a case involved a death, it was Mr. Gricar who personally argued the case. One I mentioned prior to this was the 1997 prosecution Douglas Grove for the shooting of Kitu Sampson. Mr. Sampson broke into a trailer then occupied by Mr. Grove; he had done so several times before, to get some belongings to Mrs. Sampson.4 Mrs. Sampson was in a woman’s resource center, claiming that Mr. Sampson had given her a black eye.5 Mr. Sampson had threatened Mr. Grove several times before, in front of witnesses.6 Mr. Grove claimed self defense.
Mr. Gricar, after a coroner’s jury, charged Mr. Grove with first degree murder, third degree murder, and voluntary manslaughter; the first two charges were dismissed at the preliminary hearing. Mr. Grove’s attorney, Joseph L. Amendola, said, at the time, “I just think it is going to be a cold day in hell, when 12 people decide you can’t protect your property.”7 Mr. Amendola was right.
Even in Philadelphia, it would be difficult to get a conviction of a defendant who shot someone breaking into his property. Politically, that alone would cost him votes, but it was more than that. Mr. Sampson was both out of town and was African American; Mr. Grove was Caucasian and a local resident. While I would not claim either racial or address discrimination was widespread in Centre County in the 1990’s, it was not absent either. The family of Mr. Sampson was not cooperative either, as they “stormed out” of the opening argument, and referred to Mr. Gricar as having a “racist orientation.”8 Yet, Mr. Gricar did not pass this case off on one of his assistants; he argued it personally.
In one of last cases Mr. Gricar argued, the involuntary manslaughter trial of the Rosengrants brothers in 2004, he said that he felt he had to prosecute because a death was involved. He was under no illusions that this would be an easy case, stating that in these types of cases, “”There is a lot of sympathy for those on trial.”9
The third part of Mr. Gricar’s legacy was this. He took hard, potentially politically damaging, cases that he knew he might not win. While District Attorney is an elective position, hence a political position, Mr. Gricar’s conduct as District Attorney, was not political. He tried to do justice as he saw it, even against the odds. One of his assistant district attorneys, Steve Sloane, said that Mr. Gricar “felt a responsibility not to ‘PLAY’ DA on TV and in the office, but actually BE A DA."
Mr. Gricar wasn’t perfect. He made mistakes, as can be seen in his comments on the Bailey case.10 He lost cases, as can be seen in these examples. Mr. Gricar was removed from a case for “prosecutorial misconduct” in relation to a defense expert witness, but this was only time he was found to engaged in misconduct.11 However, in that 30+ year record as a prosecutor, and nearly 20 years as the District Attorney of Centre County, he was very, very, good.
The true legacy of Mr. Gricar, some of which can only be seen in hindsight, is that he was a good administrator, an innovative district attorney, and a prosecutor who would pursue even difficult cases in the interest of justice, not for his own political interests or to puff up his record. That is a great legacy.
E-mail J. J. in Phila at firstname.lastname@example.org