D.A. shares details of office's work at chamber event

Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas gave members of the Newport Beach business community a crash course Tuesday morning in the work performed by his office.

At the Newport Beach Chamber of Commerce's monthly Wake Up! Newport breakfast event, Rackauckas, first elected to the position in 1998, said the district attorney's office deals with more than high-profile murder cases.

"There are a lot of things we do in the D.A.'s office that you wouldn't think of," he told the several dozen audience members gathered in the Newport Beach Library's Friends Room.

In a typical year, the department reviews more than 78,000 cases — the vast majority of which are settled out of court — and has about a 90% conviction rate, Rackauckas said.

That, he added, is an indicator that "we're filing the right cases."

In 2012, the office worked on 30 murder trials, Rackauckas explained, ticking through a slide show. Of those, defendants in 25 cases were convicted, while three cases ended in hung juries.

Two cases ended with juries determining that defendants were not guilty by reason of insanity — a rarity, he said.

"We could go years without one," he said.

About half of the murders in Orange County, Rackauckas said, are committed during some kind of gang activity.

His department is staffed by just under 800 employees, some of whom are focused exclusively on prosecuting gang crime.

Particularly when it comes to trails that run cold, Rackauckas said one crime-solving tool has proved to be a game-changer: DNA.

Being able to match DNA evidence collected from a crime scene with a suspect's profile has been a "huge breakthrough" for investigators, on par with "fingerprints and two-way radio," he said.

And because most crimes are committed by the same relatively small percentage of the general population, who reoffend as they move from place to place, a database of DNA profiles of felons nationwide known as CODIS has been invaluable.

Rackauckas drew gasps and chuckles as he gave examples of rapists and killers who saw justice delivered by way of their DNA.

In one instance, he said, an inmate in Oklahoma was about to be released from prison, but instead was forced to come to Orange County to stand trial for murder after his DNA popped up as a match with a crime.

Rackauckas said he's taken the idea even further, building a countywide database of DNA swabs from those who have committed misdemeanors as well as felonies.

"It's been a really good thing in our county," he said about the local database, adding that it is the only one of its kind in the state.

Rackauckas said the local database, which holds about 100,000 profiles, is faster and easier to navigate than the FBI-run system.

The district attorney said that as of January 2013, his department's database has helped solve 14 murders or attempted murders, 29 rapes or other sex crimes, and more than 200 burglaries, among other cases.

Rackauckas is up for reelection this year. He is opposed by Democratic activist Greg Diamond, an attorney.

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