Viewers know that Olivia Benson is the leather jacket-wearing detective on Law and Order SVU, an icon to law-abiding women everywhere. In a recent Women of the World biography, the newly-anointed district attorney for San Diego Summer Stephan received comparisons to Olivia Benson for her tough-as-nails approach to offenders. Stephan has taken over the top prosecutor job, handpicked by her predecessor Bonnie Dumanis, who stepped down last month, and plans to run next year to officially keep the post. Stephan has largely touted her success prosecuting sex crimes and reaching across the aisle to increase use of pretrial diversion.
But is Summer Stephan really the crusading hero she would like people to think?
In her application for district attorney, Summer Stephan called the botched prosecution of 12-year-old Stephanie Crowe one of her crowning moments — where she claims she “did the right thing.” But Stephan seems to have conveniently forgotten the facts of the case. She claims that she came into the case uninformed mid-way, and, as a result, prosecuted three kids for a crime they didn’t commit. But like many wrongful convictions, the prosecution of Michael Crowe should be reexamined as an example of the typical misbehavior that prosecutors rarely must reckon with.
In 1998, 12-year-old Stephanie Crowe was stabbed multiple times in her bed, crawling to the door before dying. Her 14-year-old brother, Michael, and two of his friends were quickly arrested for the crime. After hours of interrogation without his parents or lawyer, in a manner known to be coercive and prone to generating false statements, Michael gave the police incriminating statements. One friend made a false confession. Much of the theory of the cases rested on Michael’s penchant for video games, medieval imagery, and the game Dungeon and Dragons. There was no direct physical evidence tying them to the crime.
Summer Stephan was one of two prosecutors on the case during the grand jury indictment of Michael and his friends, and she remained heavily involved throughout. Throughout the course of the investigation, not only did Stephan refuse to question the coercive interrogation of 14-year-old boys, but she also concealed evidence showing that the prosecution’s theory of the crime was wrong. Prosecutors insisted the Michael Crowe had lied and, therefore, was guilty, but in fact, that theory was wrong.
Michael Crowe and the other boys were never tried — investigators ultimately found DNA matching someone else and never pursued the case. But the case against Michael Crowe wasn’t formally dropped for years, largely because Stephan persisted in believing she was right. In 2012, a judge declared the boys factually innocent. The likely murderer was found, but due to the botched investigation and prosecution, his first conviction was overturned and he was acquitted on retrial. (The second accused murderer’s defense was in fact the police investigation of Michael Crowe and his friends.)
During the San Diego County Board of Supervisors meeting that ultimately resulted in Stephan being appointed as interim district attorney, the Crowe family submitted a 22-page letter saying that Stephan had mistreated them and had wrongly accused them of “not cooperating” with the investigation. (The Crowes won a civil lawsuit against the city for its treatment of Michael.) The Crowe family pointed out that Dumanis herself had said during her campaign that her opponent’s office, including Stephan, had botched the case.
Stephan has argued weakly that she took over the case after it had begun and that she had nothing to do with the patently flawed theory of the case. Yet Stephan had clearly courted the spotlight the Crowe cases generated, calling Michael and his friends “evil.” And during the intervening decades, she’s done nothing to rectify her mistake, instead insisting that she is proud of her work.
So should the people really trust Summer Stephan to make the right choices now that she is the lead prosecutor for San Diego?