She sent bad guys to prison

Capital murder trial stirred personal values clash

"I read a lot of murder mysteries," says Julia Freis, a criminal attorney who in 1997 worked as co-counsel to convict a man who shot and killed a Sonoma County sheriff's deputy. The shooter was sentenced to the death penalty.

Julia Freis

In the course of 23 years as an attorney, Freis has encountered few bad guys she saw as genuinely evil. She seems more kindly than tough, and finds that most criminals simply cannot function well in society. "They flail around," she says. "They're not good at surviving within the rules. Some of it is drug problems. Some of it is stupidity."

Working as a deputy district attorney carries risks, enough to make Freis camera-shy about having her own image as the main photograph in this story. Instead she kiddingly suggested using the photo of one of her attorney idols: Elizabeth Warren, professor at Harvard Law School and special advisor to the Secretary of the Treasury on consumer financial protection.

Elizabeth Warren

At UC Santa Barbara, Freis earned a bachelor's degree in political science that yielded no job. "It wasn't a carefully planned life," she jokes, so she headed to law school as a default career. "Criminal law, criminal procedure and constitutional law—those were the only classes I stayed awake for," Freis says.

After passing the bar exam in 1987, Freis worked for a year prosecuting misdemeanor cases for the district attorney in Kern County. She had 11 jury trials, mostly DUI or theft cases. "The job was great. I learned how to do trials," she says. "I love trials. Once you figure out the evidence code, it's not tricky. But I am not a Bakersfield kind of girl. I don't chew tobacco and I don't bowl."

Freis went to work for the district attorney in Sonoma County.

"If you want to know what a society's values are, look at its criminal code."

"If you want to know what a society's values are, look at its criminal code," Freis says. "Unlike other areas of the law where you help people come to consensus, almost everybody you meet in criminal law is in pain. Victims have suffered great or minor injuries. They are upset. Then you have defendants.

"We don't actually catch the smart criminals," Freis notes. "It's not that police are brilliant. It's that crooks are dumber. You look at the whole system, this is where people who are hurting coalesce."

She learned to help people feel heard without agreeing with them. "It's a tough line when people are emotionally upset," she says. "You want them to stop crying or yelling."

The murder case triggered a personal catharsis for Freis. "Oooh, sexy case! I wanted to do that," she recalls. Her job was to push for the death sentence. Along the way she discovered that she opposes capital punishment. "When the jury came back with the death verdict, people came up and congratulated us," she says. "This was not celebratory for me. This was not a victory, even though he was not redeemable. It was an odd moment in my career."

She left the job and traveled to the tiny island country of Micronesia, with total population of about 175,000, where she worked as assistant attorney general.

"I needed to step back and think things through—what do I believe, who am I?" she says.

She went back to the Sonoma County district attorney's office for five years then opened her own office with attorney Jill Ravitch. Recently she put her political science training to good use, serving as treasurer for Ravitch's successful campaign for district attorney. Ravitch assumes office in January 2011.

After stints with estate planning and child dependency cases, Freis now handles criminal appeals cases for the State of California. "I am looking for mistakes by the court, wrong rulings, anything that would make a trial unfair," she says. "I miss the excitement of the courtroom and cross-examining witnesses. But it's more intellectual. I have tremendous freedom and can focus for hours at a time. I like it."

—James Dunn
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